Category: human services

As West Coast Encampment Sweeps Slow During Public Health Crisis, Advocates Say It’s Time to Stop Them Altogether

The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood has long been home to a large concentration of homeless services. It has two of the city’s biggest shelters, several public feeding programs, and day centers that offer showers, restrooms, and gathering spaces for people with nowhere else to be.

Lately, though, Pioneer Square has become another kind of gathering place: one where tents and makeshift shelters are crowded inches apart and people congregate in clusters on the sidewalk, in defiance of Washington state’s social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Because most public restrooms are now closed, and the city has provided only a handful of portable toilets to make up for the loss, it has become necessary to watch one’s step. Last week, the head of a social services agency said she was walking to her car when she stepped in a pile of human waste that was sliding down the rainy street.

In Seattle, as in other cities up and down the West Coast, officials are cutting down on encampment sweeps, a controversial practice in which city employees — often police officers or sanitation workers — remove a homeless camp and dispose of tents and other property. The change is born out of necessity: Many shelters are no longer accepting new clients during the pandemic, and cities have been slow to offer hotel rooms or other housing to the people currently living on their streets. People simply have nowhere else to go ― which means cities are finally, at least temporarily, slowing the practice of removing them and their belongings from public spaces.

Advocates for the homeless say Seattle’s partial moratorium on encampment removals is, at best, an overdue first step. The question is whether the city is doing enough to keep those living in the encampments safe ― and whether the moratorium will stick once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand how extremely damaging it is to uproot people, discard their personal possessions and survival gear, and not give them a solution to their homelessness,” said Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and a vocal opponent of encampment sweeps.

Back in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines advising cities to stop removing encampments “unless individual housing units are available” and to ensure that encampments have access to 24-hour restrooms or portable toilets with sinks. Most cities on the West Coast have only partly followed these guidelines. Seattle and two large California cities ― Oakland and San Jose ― have all formally adopted partial moratoriums on encampment sweeps, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have adopted less specific or informal policies that critics say allow too much leeway for sweeps to continue.

“At the beginning of this crisis, we realized very quickly that sweeps were going to be exactly contrary to public health,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which pushed the CDC to issue its guidance. “The ability to shelter in place as much as possible in your own self-shelter environment, where you can at least have a tent wall between you and your neighbor, is better than a facility where it’s just an open area and the air is circulating and you’re all using the same sinks and toilets.”

Homelessness is hard on a person’s body, making people more susceptible to illness, like COVID-19, and more likely to develop chronic conditions at a younger age. The vulnerability of homeless people to disease outbreaks can, in turn, lead to broader public health implications.

“The message we’ve been trying to send is, it’s not just about people experiencing homelessness in your community,” Tars said. “This is about your entire community, because if you don’t want a hospital bed to be taken up when your grandmother, your brother or your sister needs that bed, you need to take steps now to make sure that bed is empty.”

Read the whole story at HuffPost.

LEAD Pivots to Focus on Jail Releases, King County Outlines Behavioral Health Strategy for COVID Isolation Sites

Partitions between beds at the county’s COVID-19 isolation and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. The Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which in normal times is a program that keeps low-level offenders out of jail by providing case management and connections to services, has pivoted during the COVID epidemic to focus on people who are being let out of King County jails to prevent overcrowding and who have few social supports or legal sources of income. The Co-LEAD Program, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says, is “starting with people who were released in the wave of jail releases and are not doing very well, which is, of course, totally predictable.” The program is also accepting referrals from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement—”people who in normal days might be subject to arrest but that is completely off the table,” Daugaard said.

With job opportunities virtually nonexistent (and work release shut down for the foreseeable future), Daugaard says property crime has risen in some areas. “For a lot of people without any means of support, what’s the option?” she says. “There’s got to be some strategy for people to take care of their basic needs when there is no way to earn money. That is the bottom line for a lot of folks.”

The Co-LEAD program, which launched this week in Burien, is providing former jail inmates with access to hotel rooms, gift cards, and crisis intervention. So far, the PDA has reserved about 25 rooms in hotels along the I-5 corridor and “we plan on scaling that up rapidly.”

If you’re wondering where LEAD is getting the money to do all this—wasn’t the mayor still withholding their 2020 funding and refusing to sign a contract until LEAD met a long list of conditions?—the answer is that the city finally signed the contract and released LEAD’s full 2020 funding in late March, after the COVID epidemic hit. “We finally executed the contract for the total amount of funding and immediately the world is different,” Daugaard says.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. 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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

2. King County is opening hundreds of hotel rooms and field hospital beds for shelter residents and for those in isolation or quarantine who have (or may have) COVID-19 and have no safe place to isolate or recover. One question that has come up both tacitly and explicitly, in Seattle and in other cities with large homeless populations, is what happens when someone needs crisis intervention or help managing their active addiction.

Both Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan and San Francisco Mayor London Breed have suggested that it would be prohibitively expensive, for example, for cities to rent out large blocks of hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, because they would have to be heavily staffed by care workers—workers who would need to be trained, it is implied, to intervene at a moment’s notice when homeless clients act out, attempt to destroy hotel property, or try to leave.

“It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”—King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division director Kelli Nomura

Kelli Nomura, the director of King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, says the county has not had to ask anyone to leave any of its quarantine, isolation, and recovery centers, which, as of Sunday, will include a 140-bed field hospital in Shoreline. The county is connecting people to their existing providers when they have them, and providing behavioral health and addiction management services through its King County Integrated Care Network if they don’t.

“Everyone who’s going into these facilities is needing some level of behavioral health support,” including people who aren’t homeless, Nomura says. “It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”

Nomura says there have been instances when someone with a severe, persistent mental health disorder has had an acute episode, or when people who are actively using drugs or drinking have needed immediate help managing withdrawal symptoms. When that happens, she says, behavioral health staff either connect them by phone with their existing provider or “just step in and do that crisis intervention ourselves. … We have been deescalating, doing motivational interviewing, and you might have to go into on site” to go into a person’s room and intervene, she says.

The county is reserving beds at its isolation and quarantine site on Aurora Ave. N, which includes 23 units in modular buildings, for people who need daily methadone dosing, Nomura says, but opiate users who take Suboxone (buprenorphine) to manage their addictions can fill their prescriptions or get a new one at the other sites.

As of tomorrow, the county will have opened just over 400 units in isolation, quarantine, and recovery sites, including the 140 beds opening in Shoreline on Sunday. Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says additional sites at Eastgate in Bellevue and in White Center will be ready later this month; an additional site in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, which was initially planned as an isolation and quarantine location, may instead be used as an expansion site for the city’s still-overcrowded shelters.

Morales Proposes Eliminating Most Encampment Sweeps, Mayor’s Office Says Huge New “Shelter Tent” Is Coming, and More

Two of the beds the city is counting as “temporary housing” for homeless people, at an isolation/quarantine facility for COVID patients

1. City council member Tammy Morales plans to introduce a budget proviso that would restrict the Navigation Team’s ability to remove encampments that are not true hazards or obstructions. The proposal, a proviso on the adopted 2020 budget, would bar the city from spending money on sweeps except in a few specific circumstances.

The city has suspended most encampment removals during the COVID epidemic, but several homeless advocates expressed concern this week that the city plans to aggressively sweep encampments as soon as the crisis is over. Prior to the pandemic, the team, made up of police officers, outreach workers, and a cleanup crew, was removing most encampments without notice or mandatory outreach, thanks to a loophole in the city’s encampment rules. Although these rules, known as Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the team to provide 72 hours’ notice and an offer of shelter to every encampment resident, the Navigation Team has gotten around this requirement by designating the overwhelming majority of encampments as “obstructions,” which allows them to remove encampments with no notice or outreach.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. 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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Morales’ proposal would allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments only under a narrow set of circumstances. For example, if an encampment obstructed the entrance to a building; presented an immediate fire hazard; or was located inside a children’s play area, it could be removed without warning. A draft of the bill lists six situations when a removal would be justified.

Morales says the Navigation Team “is using this obstruction language as an excuse, really, to remove people, and so we are trying to limit the funds that can be used to remove encampments. … [Withholding funds] is the only leverage we seem to have. People have been calling on the executive branch since longer than Jenny Durkan’s been there to stop this process, and that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.”

2. During a presentation about the challenges the city faces in opening parks restrooms and standing up portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID crisis, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller repeated what has become one of the mayor’s favorite talking points: “We recently announced our partnership with the county in creating 1,900 new spaces” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. Sixkiller’s comments came shortly after street outreach workers and advocates described the situation on the ground, where thousands of homeless people without access to shelter or public restrooms lack places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Sixkiller said the new beds were part of the city’s efforts to “[move] people inside so hygiene can be accessed there.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces, which the mayor’s office has also described as “temporary housing,” are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.” “The reality is that there are 1,900 beds coming online,” he said. King County’s website is the most accurate guide to these 1,893 beds, some of which may not yet be online; they include about 700 existing shelter spaces that have been relocating to achieve social distancing, plus more than 1,000 hospital beds for people in isolation, quarantine, or recovery.

3. SIxkiller also said the city planned to open a “shelter tent for 180 individuals” in partnership with the Salvation Army. Homeless advocates who were participating in, and watching, the meeting said that this was the first they had heard of such a tent, and it was unclear whether the new tent would be for redistribution or an entirely new shelter. (I’ve asked the city for additional details about the tent). Up and down the West Coast, cities are beginning to move away from congregate shelters, which put people in close proximity, with people sleeping head to foot on mats or cots six feet apart and sharing air and mass restroom facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would pay for 15,000 motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and the city of Los Angeles plans to pay for 15,000 more.

A common objection to putting homeless people in hotel or motel rooms is that they need high levels of “staffing” to supervise them, a claim that advocates say is not true for most homeless people, who are capable of caring for themselves but lack the money to pay sky-high rents. Another objection, which came up at a county briefing on shelter and behavioral health on Wednesday, is that hotels aren’t interested. Some homeless advocates, including Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director Sara Rankin, have suggested that the city or county should put out a request for qualifications to hotels and see who bites. “Right now [the Downtown Emergency Service Center] is trying to reach out to hotel and motel facilities themselves, which shouldn’t be DESC’s problem. That should be something that the city is streamlining,” Rankin says.

Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer”

The city is paying $35,000 apiece for six portable toilet sites, the deputy mayor revealed Wednesday.

Human shit clinging sliding down the street and squishing under a nonprofit director’s shoe as she walked to her car in Pioneer Square. Women bleeding through their clothes because they lack menstrual supplies and a place to get clean. Street-level social service workers forced to pee in alleys because all the restrooms are locked.

These are some of the stories front-line workers told the city council on Wednesday during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee. Committee chair Andrew Lewis called the meeting in response to the lack of clean, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to use the restroom and wash their hands during the COVID crisis—a shortage that, as I first reported,  has contributed to an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ballard.

Dawn Whitson, an outreach worker for REACH – Evergreen Treatment Services who works in Georgetown, said she has resorted to handing out toilet paper to homeless people in the area, because the restroom at the Georgetown Playfield—which she said is open only sporadically—often lacks both toilet paper and soap. “I actually have been out in the field and have had to use the restroom in several different alleys myself” since all the businesses have closed, Whitson said.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

As streets, parks, and playfields have become restrooms of last resort, Whitson said the city has stopped talking to social service providers about whether and when more portable toilets and accessible hand-washing stations are coming. “We’ve managed to develop a field hospital [in CenturyLink Field], and we haven’t been able to get any port-a-potties and we haven’t been able to get any answers,” she said. “I have pointedly asked, ‘Who do we need to call to express our concerns, and I was pretty much stonewalled and told that there was no one I could speak to.”

Casey Sixkiller, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, launched into his prewritten presentation not by responding to the advocates’ concerns, but by praising Human Services Department employees for “putting their lives at risk” to stand up hygiene stations and asserting that “at least 127” park restrooms are currently open.

The city plans to add eight more port-a-potties to the six locations it announced last week, Sixkiller said, but it would be prohibitively expensive to add many more. Each portable toilet, he said, costs $35,000 a month, a price tag that some council members said sounded like price gouging to them. Honey Bucket does not have an exact price list on its website. In 2017, Willamette Week in Portland reported that the company’s prices had skyrocketed during the solar eclipse—from $140 a week to a whopping $650 per unit.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

Sixkiller said he didn’t “know that it’s price gouging” for Honey Bucket to charge what the “market conditions” will allow. “We are competing with everybody else for those resources,” Sixkiller said. “It’s just simple supply and demand.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Council president Lorena Gonzalez said whatever the price, “when we are talking about 14 toilets”—the six existing sites, plus eight new ones—”for upwards of 6,000 people, I just feel like we aren’t having a conversation based in reality in terms of what the actual need is.” Continue reading “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer””

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. 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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.

State Buys Central District Nursing Home for Hospital Relief, City Hall Shelter Clients Still Sleeping Inches Apart, and More COVID News

1. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services has purchased the former Paramount Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Seattle’s Central District to serve as a hospital for people without COVID-19, at a cost of $13.5 million, The C Is for Crank has learned. The 165-bed nursing home closed down last month, after an analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services called it one of the worst-performing nursing homes in the country.

Chris Wright, a spokesman for the state COVID Joint Information Center, said the goal of the purchase is “to free up beds in hospitals during the crisis by finding patients who are currently in hospitals, but could receive the same level of care in this nursing home.” He says the state is “trying to find a contractor to run the facility and hope to open by the end of April.” The facility will create about 100 job openings, for nurses, food service workers, maintenance workers, and supervisors, Wright says.

2. As homeless shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit groups “de-intensified” their existing shelters by moving some clients to new locations, people are still sleeping inches apart at the nighttime-only shelter at City Hall, which is run by the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center. Staffing is apparently an issue; expanding the shelter to the red-glass lobby on Fourth Avenue (as has been discussed) or moving some shelter clients elsewhere would require additional Salvation Army employees or other staff.

A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said that “Many shelter operators, including the operator at the City Hall shelters, are facing staffing capacity constraints that make it challenging to split operations between multiple sites quickly. City staff have been stepping in to help staff shelters to meet this need, and we are working with the service provider to identify solutions.” A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said the group had nothing new to announce about the shelter.

The basic shelter at City Hall consists of 75 mats on the floor inside the Fifth Avenue lobby, which is open daily from 7pm until 7 in the morning.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

3. Staff at the city’s Human Services, Parks, and Seattle Center departments are being reassigned to front-line positions working in some of the new shelter spaces that have been opened for residents at  as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and distributing food through HSD’s division of Youth and Family Empowerment. These reassignments apply not just to the approximately 70 workers who have been specially trained to work in shelters, but also to other staffers who will be reassigned as part of the departments’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs), which shut down certain city facilities and functions while defining others as “mission essential.”

It’s unclear what, if any, long-term plan exists for city employees who would ordinarily be reassigned to front-line jobs but are in a high-risk group for COVID exposure. The mayor’s order authorizes departments to provide “full or partial compensation” to these workers, but the city did not provide any specific details about what that will look like, or whether some employees may eventually have to be furloughed until front-line services can open again.

4. Governor Jay Inslee confirmed on Saturday that the state is using prison labor to make hospital gowns during the COVID crisis. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the gowns are being produced by inmates at the Coyote Ridge medium-security prison in Franklin County. Inslee said Saturday that the prisoners were “very eager for this job, and we’re eager for their success in this regard.” Prisoners in Washington State make a fraction of the state minimum wage.

Prison reform advocates across the country, including in Washington State, have argued that state prison systems should release many incarcerated people to protect their health during the COVID crisis. Inslee said Saturday that “we have a commitment … to keeping these incarcerated individuals as safe as humanly possible” during the pandemic.

5. The Seattle City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution this afternoon asking Gov. Inslee to use his emergency powers to implement a moratorium on all residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments in the state, and to forgive any debt accumulated by renters and property owners after the COVID crisis has passed. The resolution, which also calls on the federal government to enact a similar policy nationwide, passed unanimously, though not without a bit of incredulous guffawing from council member Debora Juarez, who (along with her colleague Alex Pedersen) seemed skeptical about the idea of effectively canceling all rent and mortgage payments for the indefinite future.

“So you’re saying that a commercial [landlord] that owns 20-plus units, or apartments, who also has a mortgage to pay … that we are lobbying for them as well, under this administration and to our governor, that they too don’t have to pay their mortgage to the bank?” Juarez asked.

“That’s right,” the resolution’s sponsor, council member Tammy Morales, responded.

Pedersen expressed doubt about the legality of preemptively forgiving all rent and mortgage debt, and seemed to question whether renters would really need the help. “I’m concerned that [if] people are getting other relief, why would we want to then suspend the payments that are due when they’re getting relief from other angles?” he said. On the other hand, Pedersen said, “I have received lots of emails from constituents who are expressing their major concern and fear and pain that they’re suffering during this crisis, so I wish we had more time to think this through.”

City of Seattle Rents Out Downtown Hotel for First Responders at $280 a Night, Potty Plan Scaled Back, and Fuzzy Math Adds Up to “1,900 New Temporary Housing Spots”

 

The restrooms at Cal Anderson Park have been closed for some time due to a “maintenance issue,” according to the mayor’s office. The park will soon get new portable toilets and a hand washing station.

1. The city budget office has inked a deal with the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown to rent out all of the hotel’s 155 rooms for three months, at a cost of $3.9 million, to provide spaces for first responders who need to be in isolation or quarantine after exposure to the COVID-19 virus, The C Is for Crank has learned. The contract went into effect on March 23. The cost, which the city hopes will be partially reimbursed by the federal government, works out to $280 per room, per night. UPDATE: After this post was published, the city contacted me to say that the official memo from the City Budget Office to the City Council citing a $3.9 million price tag was in error and reduced the estimate to $3.4 million. Subsequently, they gave an even lower estimate, as little as $2.8 million, to the Seattle Times. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that the true cost is unclear.)

A representative for the Executive Pacific Hotel declined to comment on the arrangement. Rooms at the hotel were going for less than $70 a night earlier this week. 

The city did not directly respond to a question about whether any first responders are currently living in the hotel. A spokeswoman with the city’s Emergency Operations Center said, “We currently have dozens of first responders who are in isolation or quarantine.” Even if all of those people were staying at the hotel, that would still leave most of the rooms sitting empty for now.

City Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district includes downtown, has been talking about making hotel space available for first responders or people experiencing homelessness. He said deals with hotels could help an industry that has seen “a massive falloff of business,” but added that he had personally received a quote of $95 a night for a different downtown hotel that offered to make rooms available. Lewis says he plans to introduce a resolution asking the mayor to keep a “roster of these investments and report back … and one of the things that I’m going to ask for is cost, to make sure that we are a getting good deals.”

The contract reportedly includes the cost of food for people who will stay at the hotel. It does not appear to include modifications to the hotel’s HVAC system, which might have been a necessary cost if the rooms were connected by internal ventilation—that is, if they all shared the same air. According to the EOC, each room has its own individual heating and cooling units and vents its exhaust to the outside; the rooms also have windows that open, allowing additional ventilation.

Hotel workers, including cleaning staff, who come into contact with people who have contracted or been exposed to COVID could be at risk of contracting the virus themselves. Stefan Moritz from UNITE HERE Local 8, which represents hotel workers, said he was still getting details on the kind of conditions hotel staff will be working under at hotels that are turned into quarantine and isolation sites.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

2. This morning, nearly two weeks after announcing the city would be opening portable toilets “across the city,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a truncated list of port-a-potty locations that is both significantly shorter, and significantly less “citywide,” than a draft list that included more than 20 new sites, including five hygiene trailers that were funded last year. According to the press release, the six new sites, which will have a total of 14 toilets, are “in in addition to the 133 locations in parks throughout the City, available to all residents, and are currently being serviced by Seattle Parks and Recreation.” Initially, the release said that there were “more than 180 [restroom] locations in parks throughout the City, available to all residents.” (UPDATE: This morning, the city said that the correct number is not 133 but 128.)

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the earlier number included community centers that have closed.

For example, 85 people who had been staying at the Harborview Hall shelter run by the Salvation Army have been displaced so that the  a 45-bed coronavirus recovery site. The shelter is being moved a few blocks away. Because of the way the city and county are counting “new” beds, the shelter and recovery site now account for a total of 130 “new” beds as part of the 1,900 total.

Just one of the six new portable toilet sites and handwashing stations that made the cut will be located in North Seattle. The rest (represented by yellow dots on this map) are scattered in a rough line paralleling I-5 and SR-99, with one site each in Capitol Hill, downtown, Judkins Park, Beacon Hill, and Highland Park (in West Seattle). Some of the locations that were on the preliminary list, but did not make the cut for today’s announcement, include locations on Alki Beach, Gas Works Park in Fremont, Kinnear Park on Queen Anne, the Arboretum near Montlake,  Ravenna Park, and Woodland Park. I’ve asked the mayor’s office whether any of these sites will be considered for portable toilets in the future if the six new locations prove inadequate to meet the need.

I was unable to immediately confirm the basis for either the 180 or 133 figure cited in the initial and amended versions of the press release. (UPDATE: The same questions apply to the new number of 128.) The city’s current restroom map shows public restrooms in a total of 85 parks and 11 community centers combined, which is unchanged since the city did an analysis of public restrooms two years ago. At that time, the city’s Human Services Department listed a total of 117 public restrooms in city-owned facilities, a list that also included libraries (which are now closed) and a handful of portable toilets that were then available at King County Metro’s bus driver relief stops.

Claiming that the city and county have created “1,900 new sites across the City to help individuals experiencing homelessness” is misleading.

3. The mayor’s press release also claims that the city and county have created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for “people experiencing homelessness.”

This description is misleading. First, under the definition used by the city itself, “housing” is a place where someone is housed. Cots in shelters, tiny houses in encampments, and beds in a hospital do not count as housing, “temporary” or otherwise.

Second, fewer than half of the 1,900 beds are reserved for people experiencing homelessness, and only a handful of those are actually “new.” About 700 of the 1,900 are existing shelter beds that are being redistributed to allow more spacing between cots. Only about 50 shelter beds, and 45 spots in tiny house villages, are actually new—and these, under federal definitions, are temporary shelter, not “housing.” For example, 85 people who had been staying at the Harborview Hall shelter run by the Salvation Army have been displaced so that the  a 45-bed coronavirus recovery site. The shelter is being moved a few blocks away. Because of the way the city and county are counting “new” beds, the shelter and recovery site now account for a total of 130 “new” beds as part of the 1,900 total.

Most of the remaining spots are beds in isolation and recovery sites that are not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness. They include 200 beds in a field hospital set up on a soccer field in Shoreline; an unknown number of spots in a large isolation and recovery tent for COVID-19 sufferers in a Bellevue parking lot; previously announced motel rooms in Issaquah and Kent; and “up to 612 beds” for “people who do not require emergent care” to recover after they’ve been sick, according to the county.

Third, some shelters are closing because of the COVID crisis, reducing the total number of beds available to people in need. The city has not factored these lost beds into its calculations; that is, while counting hospital beds for COVID victims as “housing for the homeless” and double-counting some shelter beds, the city and county have failed to subtract the beds that are being lost.

This may seem like nitpicking, but a casual reader of a press release announcing “1,900 new sites across the City to help individuals experiencing homelessness,” as this morning’s announcement puts it, might be misled to believe that the city and county have created 1,900 new housing, or even shelter, spots for people experiencing homelessness, when this simply is not the case.

Evening Crank Part 2: Unanswered Questions

Coming soon to a sidewalk near you?

1. Since the COVID crisis began, it has become tougher than usual to get information directly from city departments, which now respond to pretty much any inquiry with some version of “all questions have to go through the mayor’s office.” (There is one exception, but I won’t tell you what it is.) The mayor’s office, in turn, typically responds to these requests with some version of, “We will have an announcement on that in the coming days,” which may or may not be followed by an announcement.

Things the mayor’s office was unable to tell me about in the past few days include:

When the city (specifically, Seattle Public Utilities) plans to deploy the portable toilets announced on the Human Service Department’s website one week ago; how many toilets there will be; where they will be located; and how (and how often) they will be maintained.

Where four mobile hygiene trailers funded in last year’s budget (funded last year but re-announced in the same HSD blog post) will be deployed, and on what schedule.

How, specifically, the city plans to fill the 50 new shelter beds, and 50 new spots in two tiny house villages, it plans to open in response to the COVID crisis, and how the city will choose who gets this scarce resource. Specifically, I’ve asked how many of those beds and slots will be reserved for people referred by the Navigation Team, which is providing outreach and information at unsanctioned encampments, and how many will be open to people who are contacted by other outreach workers, such as those at REACH, which is still doing encampment outreach during the pandemic.

These questions, particularly the ones about restrooms, are of critical and immediate importance to the thousands of homeless people, both unsheltered and staying in nighttime-only emergency shelters, in Seattle. Most of the city’s public restrooms, including those inside private businesses and those in libraries, hygiene centers, and social service agencies, have closed, giving people without homes few options in a city where restroom availability already fell far short of international standards.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

2. This afternoon (12 days ago in COVID time), the city council approved a plan to reallocate about $1 million (out of about $12 million total) in community development block grants originally designated for housing construction to pay for grants to low-income small business owners. Only council member Kshama Sawant voted against the plan, arguing that the city should dip into its “rainy day fund” instead of taking money that could have theoretically gone to housing (although it was not allocated to any particular project.)

The city has two emergency funds, the rainy day fund and the emergency subfund, which can be used to pay for unanticipated spending needs or to mitigate cuts during budget downturns. Earlier this month, city budget director Ben Noble estimated that the city could face a revenue shortfall this year of $110 million. Together, both emergency funds total about $125 million.

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the legislation, raised one concern last week that she said she’ll revisit after the funds are allocated and the current crisis has abated: Online application materials for the grants were initially only in English, potentially putting small business owners who don’t speak English as their native language at a disadvantage when applying for the grants.

“When those who don’t speak English have extra barriers put in place in order to participate… [it’s] an example of how often our city government operates with blinders on to anyone who isn’t part of the dominant culture,” Morales said at a council meeting last week. But, “rather than slow down the disbursement of this particular fund, I’m asking that we hear back from the [Office of Economic Development] this summer on how these funds were distributed” to make sure that non-English-speaking business owners had equal access to the funds.

Evening Crank Part 1: Hunker Down Edition

Cracks visible in the girders supporting the West Seattle Bridge. SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe says the discolored areas visible around the damage are “a result of the preventive maintenance we’ve done over the past few years, so don’t in and of themselves illustrate all of the issues we are concerned about right now.”

1. How long has the COVID-19 epidemic been going on? Only six years, you say? Well, in the words of Gov. Jay Inslee, hunker down…

It was a big news day, and not just because Gov. Jay Inslee finally told us all to go to our rooms and not come out until he said so. (Find a list of “essential” businesses that will stay open, which includes everything from veterinarians to food banks to recreational pot stores, here). Earlier in the day, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the high West Seattle Bridge will be completely closed to traffic until further notice, due to cracks in the concrete girders that support the bridge’s weight. Durkan said the new discoveries mean that the bridge “cannot safely support vehicular traffic.”

During a press conference conducted via Skype, Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe said the closure could last weeks or months. Zimbabwe said there hadn’t been a single incident or catastrophic event that led to the new damage; rather, crews inspecting the bridge last night discovered that cracks in the girders that had already allowed “incursions” of water and air had grown dramatically wider. Most of the weight of the bridge—about 80 percent—consists of the bridge itself, but heavier vehicles, and more of them, may have contributed to the damage, Zimbabwe said.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Drivers hoping to use the lower West Seattle bridge are out of luck; the secondary bridge will be open only to first responders, transit, and freight. People who choose to commute by car will have to go far afield of their usual routes, using West Marginal Way, First Ave. S., or SR 509 to get off the peninsula.

The announcement was so sudden that the two city council members who live in West Seattle, Lisa Herbold (District 1) and Lorena Gonzalez (Position 9) found out about the closure just a few hours before the public did. (The same was true of King County Council member Joe McDermott, who said in an email to constituents  this evening that he just found out about the closure “this afternoon.”) Mayor Durkan did not specify exactly why the closure had to happen with so little notice.

In a statement, Herbold, who represents West Seattle, questioned the decision to completely shut down the lower bridge to private auto traffic, saying she wanted  to know “how soon it can be opened for traffic given lower traffic volumes in Seattle” because of the COVID-19 epidemic and stay-at-home order. “My office has requested that SDOT appeal to the Coast Guard to make fewer bridge openings of the lower level bridge to allow for more buses and cars to cross, like they did in early 2019 when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed and the SR99 tunnel was not yet open.”

A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.”

2. At a city council briefing this morning, Position 8 city council member Teresa Mosqueda expressed optimism that “downtown boutique hotels” would soon begin offering rooms to people who were healthy but needed to self-isolate because they are members of a vulnerable group. “I really want to thank some of the hotel owners, especially some of the downtown boutique hotel owners,” for offering to help house people impacted by the COVID epidemic, Mosqueda said.

Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district (7) includes downtown, also said he hoped that downtown hotels would be able to offer rooms “to get people off the street and get people inside quickly on a temporary basis,” an arrangement that could also “give a boon to our struggling hospitality industry that has suffered from a massive dropoff in tourism” because of COVID-19. Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and Palladian hotels downtown, has reportedly been in contact with city about providing rooms for this purpose.

The city’s Office of Labor Standards has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

However, it was unclear Monday whether any hotels had actually stepped up and offered rooms, either for people experiencing homelessness or for first responders and others who need to be isolated because of potential COVID-19 exposure. A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.” The spokeswoman, Brandyn Hull, added that the hotels “have offered to support the city with very low rates” for first responders, medical workers, and representatives of the CDC.

3. After getting reports that restaurants and other businesses that had to lay off workers during the COVID crisis had failed to pay employees for time they’d already worked, I contacted the city’s Office of Labor Standards to see what recourse people in this situation might have. After initially writing that “All media inquires must go through the Mayor’s office,” they got back to me with more specific responses  this morning.

If you’ve been laid off and your employer did not pay you for time you worked—for example, if your boss told you they couldn’t pay your last paycheck—that “may be considered administrative wage theft,” so try contacting OLS or the state Department of Labor and Industries to see if they can resolve it. If you didn’t get paid for vacation or sick time you accrued, you’re probably out of luck, unless you can prove that getting paid out was a condition of your employment.

OLS has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

 

Coronavirus Prompts Shelter Expansion, Sound Transit Moves to Amend Fare Enforcement Policies, and More

King County Executive Dow Constantine

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine acknowledged Wednesday that an inmate who was being transferred from the SCORE regional jail in Des Moines to the King County Jail in Seattle was sent to Harborview with concerning symptoms and that the jail shut down intake for a few hours. The inmate did not have the virus. Asked if the jail had a plan for a future outbreak, Constantine said, “We are being very vigilant about any either staff or inmate who would have symptoms, and they would be isolated immediately” within the jail.

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced today that the city will open up 100 new shelter beds, including 20 new units at the existing Lake Union tiny house village, a new 30-unit tiny house village on Cherry Hill, and a former addiction treatment center in Bitter Lake, which can hold another 50 or so people in 28 rooms. All of the new shelter and tiny house spaces will be operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.

LIHI plans to continue operating the new and expanded tiny house villages, and possibly the shelter at the former treatment center (which LIHI owns), after the current crisis passes. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said that the city is “continuing to evaluate the continuation of funding sources,” adding that “once the crisis is under control, the City and County will determine the best use for the infrastructure put in place under the Emergency Declaration.”

“There are 5,000 unsheltered men, women, and children on the street. Why does it take the coronavirus to make people [decide] that something should be done for homeless people? The existing status quo is bad enough. We should be standing these up anyway.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

The obvious question is: If it was possible to open up this many shelter spaces so quickly, why didn’t the city do it before? (A similar question could be asked of the county, which purchased a hotel in Kent and is standing up modular units in White Center, Interbay, and North Seattle to quarantine and isolate homeless people and others who test positive for the virus.) Sharon Lee, LIHI’s director, is asking it: “There are 5,000 unsheltered men, women, and children on the street” in Seattle, Lee says. “Why does it take the coronavirus to make people [decide] that something should be done for homeless people? The existing status quo is bad enough. We should be standing these up anyway.”

Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said that at the moment, “the City isn’t anticipating that any of these sites will be used for isolation or quarantine. … HSD will take direction from Public Health on operations in relation to COVID-19. Once the crisis is under control, the City and County will determine the best use for the infrastructure put in place under the Emergency Declaration.”

Sound Transit’s favorite slide.

2.Sound Transit staff presented recommendations to improve its controversial fare-enforcement policies on Thursday morning, but the list of proposed changes did not include a number of steps recommended by advocates for low-income people and riders of color, such as allowing riders transferring from the King County Metro bus system to use paper transfers as proof of payment, eliminating fares, and moving the entire ticketing and fine process outside the court system altogether.

Other community-suggested changes that Sound Transit decided not to pursue include: Eliminating fares; adding on-board payment options; setting a maximum amount that riders can pay for transit every month; and replacing fines with ORCA cards of equivalent value.

The changes Sound Transit is making will be familiar to anyone who has been following the fare enforcement discussion, because they haven’t changed substantially since the agency first began floating possible changes win January. The agency says it will cut fines from $124 to $50; increase the number of verbal warnings for nonpayment from one to two in a 12-month period; set official parameters for eliminating fare enforcement during severe weather and around the first day of school; and work with King County to move ticket resolution into community court.

Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci noted the agency could move tickets to community court without continuing to criminalize nonpayment, which can lead to misdemeanor charges. Continue reading “Coronavirus Prompts Shelter Expansion, Sound Transit Moves to Amend Fare Enforcement Policies, and More”