Best of Crank: Does “Our Best” Leave Black Girls Behind?

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Today’s post looks at a program funded in this year’s city budget called “Our Best,” which aims to  close the achievement gap and create mentoring opportunities for African American boys. Like former President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program (which is also in place in some Seattle schools), “Our Best” promotes responsibility, accountability, and achievement for black boys—at the expense, some critics have argued, of black girls, who face different but no less daunting challenges on the way to graduation and self-sufficiency. Additionally, critics such as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw have argued that programs aimed exclusively at young black men enforce antiquated gender roles by promoting the image of boys as future breadwinners and husbands whose success will trickle down to the women they eventually marry; my interview with Crenshaw, a celebrated writer and academic who coined the term “intersectionality,” is here.

This post ran on August 28.

Does “Our Best” Leave Black Girls Behind?

In 2012, only 57 percent of African-American boys graduated from high school in Washington state, compared to 73 percent of their white counterparts.

The achievement gap for young black men goes far beyond their graduation rates. Nationally, African-American boys are twice as likely to drop out of high school as white boys, and are three times as likely to be suspended. In Seattle, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as white boys to be referred to special education, and these students in general fall far behind their white counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores to seventh-grade math proficiency to graduation rates. In 2015, 56 percent of white Seattle Public Schools graduates ended up going to a four-year college; just 30 percent of black students did the same. This achievement gap has lifelong ramifications; nearly 70 percent of young black men who drop out of school will end up in prison, and one in three black boys will be incarcerated in their lifetime.

“If you look at discipline data or graduation data or just regular third-grade test data, you’ll see just a huge discrepancy in the gaps between black males and their counterparts,” says Dwane Chappelle, director of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning.

The achievement gap between black and white boys has been documented for decades, but the emphasis on programs targeted at improving the outcomes for black boys is a more recent phenomenon. Last year, after the City of Seattle’s first Education Summit, Mayor Ed Murray convened a 32-member advisory committee to come up with recommendations to close the gap. This year, to help accomplish this audacious goal, Murray organized a Youth Opportunity Cabinet, which includes African-American city department heads, such as Chappelle and Brian Surratt, director of the Office of Economic Development, and announced a new initiative focused on improving young black male achievement, called Our Best. (“If they are given resources that others take for granted, our young black men are our best,” Surratt says.)

The city has allocated $300,000 for the first year of the program (with few details on exactly how the money will be spent), which is modeled after former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, but aimed at boys and youth between the ages of 14 and 24. A good portion of that money will support a one-year pilot project, which began in July, to double the number of black male mentors, by providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs; the money will also fund a new special adviser to the mayor on young black male achievement.

Mentors, Surratt says, can give black boys the kind of positive role models they may be lacking in home or at school, and from experience can provide lessons on how to cope with challenges. “It’s not a cultural deficiency model,” says Surratt, referring to a model that says young black men are broken and need to be fixed. “It’s an asset richness model”—one that takes the assets that already exist in the African-American community and puts them to work guiding young men who may be struggling into responsible adulthood.

Our Best also includes a new mayor’s council on black male achievement, with the goal of increasing the number of black boys who graduate high school; providing young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful,” well-paid employment; and reducing the percentage of young black men entering the criminal justice system.

While the city’s renewed focus on young black male achievement is both admirable and necessary, some worry that male-focused programs like Our Best leave black girls behind.

Black girls are six times as likely as white girls to get kicked out of school—a racial gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between black and white boys.

Like those of their male counterparts, black girls’ reading and math scores are at or near the bottom level, and four in 10 black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason. Black girls who drop out may suffer greater economic consequences than black boys, largely because the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts. Black girls are also far more likely to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for black men and $41,500 for single white women.

Moreover, black girls experience harm at school that the standard “achievement gap” yardstick simply fails to measure, such as sexual violence, suicide, harassment and the consequences of single parenting, says Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum and a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University.

“There is a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy,” says Crenshaw. Much like health research that for many years only used male subjects, the data available on African-American student achievement is largely centered on outcomes that primarily impact boys, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a feedback loop that leaves girls out. “It’s not just one gender that’s struggling, [but] the conversation up ’til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys,” says Crenshaw.

Proponents of Our Best say they’re aware that girls face specific challenges that boys don’t. “We all know that our young ladies need support as well,” Chappelle says. But, he says, “We have to get that infrastructure in place first, and then we will be able to provide the young ladies with support, too.” Supporters of Our Best also insist that by helping young men, the program will benefit young black women as well, by fixing systems that hurt everybody when they’re broken.

“The intent is that if you fix a demographic that is clearly doing statistically the poorest, you are in fact fixing the institutional problems for the other demographics as well,” says City Council member Bruce Harrell, an Our Best proponent. “In fixing a lot of the institutional practices that work to the detriment of young black males, I think young black females and even others will reap the benefits.”

Surratt adds, “Unfortunately, across almost every metric that you can imagine, every social, economic and health indicator, young black men are suffering the most, and so we wanted to tackle this part of the community first.”

Crenshaw, who criticized Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program for excluding girls in a New York Times op-ed piece, is less convinced, calling that theory “trickle-down social justice” that “doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did.”

Chappelle points to the fact that at least one school in Seattle that implemented the My Brother’s Keeper program, Aki Kurose Middle School, has since added an analogous Our Sister’s Keeper program for girls as evidence that the program will probably expand—eventually.

“Once we get Our Best down as far as young black men are concerned, then I would anticipate we would figure out a way to make sure that we are weaving in the support we need for our young black women, and also other young women of color who have historically been marginalized,” Chappelle says. The question is, how long will it take? And will it be soon enough to help the latest generation of young black girls who are at risk of falling through the cracks?

Best of Crank 2017: The Other Drug Epidemic

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

As the heroin and opiate addiction epidemic continued to command attention on the local and national level, this story shone a spotlight on a local drug crisis that still hasn’t been covered anywhere else—a dramatic spike in deaths from methamphetamine overdoses that highlights the need for supervised consumption facilities, staffed with professionals who can reverse and treat overdoses, for all illicit drugs, not just heroin.

As King County Grapples With Heroin, Another Lethal Drug is on the Rise

As political leaders focus their attention on the ongoing epidemic of heroin and prescription opiate addiction—an epidemic that claimed 132 lives in King County in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available—another drug crisis may be developing right under their noses.

Since 2010, according to data just released by the University of Washington, the number of deaths related to methamphetamine has risen steadily throughout Washington State—from 1.8 deaths per 100,000 state residents in 2010 to 4.9 per 100,000 in 2015. In King County, the number of meth-related overdoses increased by 257 percent between 2003 and 2015. Dr. Michael Sayre, the medical director for the Seattle Fire Department and a Harborview-affiliated emergency medicine doctor, calls the uptick in meth ODs “the most significant trend in drug-related mortality” in the region.

Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher with the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute and a member of the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, says one reason for the uptick in meth use is the fact that “cocaine availability has tanked in the last five years.” Meanwhile, meth has become more potent and readily available than ever before. People appear to be using meth as a cocaine substitute, even though, according to Banta-Green, the two drugs are quite different—cocaine is shorter-lived and less intense than meth, which can provide 20 times the dopamine hit and last many hours longer.

“You don’t hear a lot of people saying, ‘I use cocaine because it helps me stay at my job longer.’ You do hear people say that about methamphetamine,” Banta-Green says.

So why haven’t you read about this emerging epidemic? One of the reasons may be simply that, unlike for opiates, there aren’t any particularly effective medical interventions for meth overdoses or addiction. When someone overdoses on heroin, for example, emergency responders, or even a lay person with the right equipment, can quickly reverse the overdose by giving the victim a shot of Narcan, a drug that restores heart function and breathing. There is no similar drug for meth ODs, which overload the cardiovascular system with adrenalin and can lead to heart failure, stroke, seizures and hyperthermia (overheating). A stimulant overdose “definitely requires medical attention,” Sayre says. “It’s not something that a layperson or even a medically trained person without the proper resources can appropriately manage.”

So why haven’t you read about this emerging epidemic? One of the reasons may be simply that, unlike for opiates, there aren’t any particularly effective medical interventions for meth overdoses or addiction.

Methamphetamine addicts seeking treatment face a similar dearth of medical (as opposed to behavioral) treatment options as those with other addictions. While heroin addicts have the option of medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine (Suboxone), two prescription opiates that serve as replacements for more harmful drugs like heroin, there is still no medication-assisted treatment for stimulants like meth. Drug replacement therapy with other stimulants like Adderal (a drug that’s very closely related to meth) doesn’t appear to work and can be dangerous to users who already have high blood pressure and enlarged hearts; and although two antidepressants, buproprion (Wellbutrin) and mirtazapine (Remeron) have shown some promise in reducing meth use in chronic users, neither has been widely tested or shown impressive results.

“I’m not very optimistic that we’re going to get a good medication any time soon,” says Dr. Andy Saxon, who directs the Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education at the Veterans Administration in Seattle.

Instead, Saxon says that the best treatment he’s found for meth addiction is a behavioral approach called contingency management, where users are given rewards with some monetary value if they stop or reduce their use. The VA, for example, uses what Saxon calls the “fishbowl technique.” Veterans who pass a drug test get to pull a card from a fishbowl (or more than one card if they’ve passed several tests in a row); the reward on the card could be anything from verbal reinforcement (“Nice work”) to a $100 gift card for the VA store. The idea is to replace the hit of dopamine produced when a user takes a drink or a hit with a monetary reward, since both rewards act on the same pleasure center in the brain. Other moderately effective treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, and motivational interviewing, all mainstays of traditional treatment programs.

None of those treatments is particularly effective (according to Saxon, about half the people who are in the VA’s behavioral treatment programs manage to reduce their use), and all are significantly more expensive than medication-assisted treatment for opiates, which may consist of nothing more than a prescription for a replacement drug. Nor is it easy to reach meth addicts, particularly those who are homeless or living in marginal housing; unless they are injection users or use other injection drugs like heroin, meth users aren’t coming in to needle exchanges, and they typically leave emergency rooms with little more than a recommendation to seek further treatment and a “good luck.”

Sayre suggests a few solutions that could help meth users in the immediate and long term. First, he says, the state needs to do everything it can to ensure that users in crisis feel safe seeking help. Existing “Good Samaritan” laws, which shield people seeking medical help for an overdose from prosecution, should be expanded to cover people who are on parole, on probation, or who have outstanding warrants. Second, existing outreach programs, such as needle exchanges, should provide incentives for meth users to come in and access their services, such as providing new, unbroken meth pipes. (The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, which runs a needle exchange in the University District, already does this.) And third, “maybe we need to think more seriously about offering safe spaces and more help for people who are tweaking”— overstimulated on meth—where they can get access to treatment and other services.

As it happens, the county has already proposed creating such a space. It’s called a community health engagement location (colloquially known as a safe consumption site). But it’s generated significant controversy, and is currently the subject of an initiative designed to ban all such facilities across the county.

Best of Crank 2017: Seattle’s Low-Barrier Shelter Has Housed Just Two People

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This post is an update on the city’s Navigation Center, which I learned had gotten just two people into housing since opening several months earlier—one in transitional housing (a model from which the city is moving away) and one with a family member.  The news was troubling, given that the Navigation Center (modeled on a similar system of low-barrier shelters in San Francisco) was supposed to be model for housing some of Seattle’s most challenging homeless residents, including those with substance use issues and mental-health challenges. Several factors account for the Seattle Navigation Center’s slow progress in moving people into housing, but none is more daunting than the fact that the Seattle-area housing market is too simply too expensive for people with little or no income.

This post ran on October 13.

Navigation Center Has Housed Just Two People Since Opening in July

 

Late last month, the city’s Human Services Department released its first annual report on Pathways Home, a new framework for serving homeless residents that emphasizes “rapid rehousing” and submits service providers to new performance standards. Among other conclusions, the report found that the Navigation Center, a 75-bed shelter that serves people who don’t do well in traditional shelters, has struggled to place people into permanent housing within the 60-day time limit set by the city.

“People coming inside from being unsheltered have a big adjustment to make and multiple issues to address and many barriers to housing stability; the Navigation Center is finding that mapping out a strategy to get them housed could take more than 60 days,” the report says.

In fact, as of October, the Navigation Center had placed just two people into housing, according to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which runs the Center. DESC’s director of administrative services, Greg Jenson, says that one of those clients is now in transitional housing and one went to live with family. According to the Pathways Home report, of the 105 clients who came through the center in its first six weeks, 32 have left, and “nearly half” of those “have refused to disclose or didn’t know where they were exiting to.”

DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go.

 

The Navigation Center is designed to serve clients who are the “hardest to house”—people experiencing chronic homelessness who often face multiple barriers to finding a place to live, such as ongoing substance abuse and mental-health issues. It “was not designed to serve the needs of the higher-functioning individuals who are more likely to thrive in traditional shelter settings which have strict rule requirements,” Jackie St. Louis, the coordinator for the Navigation Team, says.

However, DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go. “One thing that has been good is being able to identify people who have a natural priority for the limited housing that is available in the community,” by giving them an assessment that scores them on the number of barriers to housing they face, Malone says. But, he adds, “If we aren’t producing new housing, they’ll just be getting it instead of someone else.”

Seattle’s Navigation Center isn’t the first of its kind; that distinction goes to a low-barrier shelter by the same name in San Francisco, which also serves a hard-to-house clientele. In San Francisco, clients seeking permanent housing stay an average of 90 days, and that figure would likely be larger if the city didn’t set aside some low-income housing units specifically for Navigation Center clients, something Seattle does not do. Although Seattle officials were familiar with the challenges San Francisco faced in housing people through its Navigation Center, the city adopted a 60-day cap, predicting that Seattle’s Navigation Center would be able not only mimic but surpass San Francisco’s success.

The city’s Navigation Teams—groups of police and outreach workers who facilitate encampment removals—frequently refer encampment residents to the Navigation Center. According to a report issued by the Navigation Team itself earlier this month, the teams have sent about 75 people to the center this year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, says she’s confident that the city is sending people who want and will benefit from the services that the center provides. “HSD and DESC are satisfied that the right clients are being referred to the Navigation Center,” she says.

But Malone notes that DESC has “definitely heard from some people that they only came there because they were having to leave where they were staying out, and they hadn’t really decided for themselves that was something that they wanted yet.”

Malone cautions against reading too much into what happens at the Navigation Center in the first few months. “Has it changed the face of homelessness in less than three months? No,” he says. “There have definitely been some start-up issues, and we need to try different things out.”

In San Francisco, Navigation Centers have been successful at getting some homeless people off the street, but they’re hardly a panacea. The success or failure of Seattle’s Navigation Center will be measured not by how many hundreds of people it moves on to permanent housing, but by how many dozens.

 

Best of Crank 2017: Lisa Sawyer, One of Those Our Homelessness System Failed

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Today, a story about Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and homeless advocate who tried to get housing through a “rapid rehousing voucher,” then, when that failed (because Sawyer and her boyfriend couldn’t find a private landlord willing to rent to them), ended up in an apartment she couldn’t afford. Sawyer’s story illustrated the complicated hoops we force homeless people to jump through to get a roof over their heads, and the ways the system punishes them when they fail to do the impossible.

This story ran on August 9, 2017.

Rapid Rehousing Didn’t Work Out. Now Lisa Sawyer May Face Eviction

Image via Facing Homelessness.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before.  They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a  black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.

Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”

The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.

In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.

Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.

“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking.  We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)

“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?’”

Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

 

Best of Crank 2017: 102-Foot-Wide Waterfront Highway Moves Forward

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

The post I’m running today, from March, broke the news that a group representing Pioneer Square businesses had reached a settlement with the city in a lawsuit aimed at preventing a planned 102-foot-wide, eight-to-nine-lane surface highway on the waterfront—the “boulevard” that was supposed to partially replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in the city’s plan to “open up” the waterfront to the rest of the city. Under the settlement, the (dubious) plan is to open the highway as planned, then narrow it back down when light rail is extended to Ballard and West Seattle in more than a decade.

Deal Reached in Waterfront Highway Lawsuit: Build 102-Foot Highway Now, Narrow It When Light Rail Opens

The Alliance for Pioneer Square has reached a settlement with the city, county, and state in its lawsuit seeking to stop the construction of a 100-foot-wide, 8-to-9-lane roadway on the waterfront in Pioneer Square, The C Is for Crank has learned.

The settlement stipulates that the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will be able to build the 102-foot-wide surface highway as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, with lanes for transit, general traffic, parking, and ferry queues, on the condition that once Sound Transit opens its light rail station in West Seattle in 2033 and Metro no longer needs to run RapidRide buses from West Seattle to downtown, the city will narrow the surface Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lanes and replacing them with new sidewalks, landscaping, or parking lanes. That will eventually bring the roadway down from 102 feet at its widest point, between S Washington St. and Yesler Way, to 79 feet. In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is supposed to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, is scheduled to open three years later, meaning that the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about ten years.

According to the settlement, which came in response to the Alliance’s appeal of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement on the waterfront reconstruction project, “Within fifteen (15) months of the opening of the Alaska Junction station of Sound Transit Light Rail service to West Seattle, the City will retrofit SR 519/Alaskan Way between Yesler Way and South King Street to narrow Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lane on each side of Alaskan Way, and converting the area of the former transit lane to sidewalks, landscaping, and on-street parking.”

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower, so that in the interim we are accommodating the transportation needs of a rapidly changing city, and in the future we will be more accommodating of the pedestrian and bicycling needs of the waterfront and the historic district,” Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith says.

 

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower.” – Leslie Smith, Alliance for Pioneer Square

 

The debate over the surface street dates back to the mid-2000s, when a group called the the People’s Waterfront Coalition argued that Seattle should follow in the footsteps of progressive cities like San Francisco and tear down its waterfront highway—without replacing it. Thanks in part to state traffic modeling that assumed (incorrectly, it turned out) that the number of people driving downtown in single-occupant vehicles would increase indefinitely, that plan was rejected, and Seattle ended up getting not just a downtown tunnel, but a costly deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits that is currently four years years late and $23 million over budget.

With the tunnel mostly off limits to transit and freight, the city, state, Port, and Metro had to figure out how to accommodate transit, freight, bikes, and pedestrians, along with cars lining up for the ferry terminal and general-purpose traffic, on the surface. No one was willing to budge on their demands—not Washington State Ferries, which insisted that it needed two car queueing lanes on Alaskan Way, not Metro, which argued that putting buses in general traffic would slow down the system from White Center to Ballard, and not the Port, which dismissed suggestions that it share a lane with transit, arguing that 18-wheelers shouldn’t be stuck behind buses that stop every couple of blocks. And that, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide highway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

“The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone,” Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster said Friday. Sitting in a vast conference room on Fifth Avenue that looks over downtown construction and, far away, the viaduct itself, Foster said the city has “worked for years to keep it as narrow as possible, [but] with the viaduct coming down, we have to not only deal with just the basic background traffic that we know will have to operate in that corridor,” but all the surface freight traffic through downtown, 600 buses carrying nearly 30,000 people a day, and hundreds of cars that line up for the ferry terminal at Colman Dock every afternoon (585 a day, according to the EIS.)

“We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.” – Marshall Foster, director, Seattle Office of the Waterfront

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re in the middle of growing pains as a city,” Foster continued. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.”

I asked Nicole Macintosh, director of terminal engineering for Washington State Ferries, why the ferry division couldn’t use a reservation system, like the one it  just implemented in the San Juan Islands and Port Townsend, to reduce the number of cars that need to line up on the waterfront. Macintosh said “we don’t have the funding yet to bring the reservation system down to the more core car commuter routes, like Seattle, but I can tell you that with that reservation system we would definitely need two lanes”—one for people with reservations, and one for people who just drive up. What about running more passenger ferries? Macintosh said that would require a change in state law, and reminded me that the ferries are considered part of the state highway system—an objection Foster acknowledges, but also chalks up to “a cultural thing” within WSDOT that could be shifting. Macintosh also rejected the notion that some of the free parking that WSDOT provides to dock workers at Colman Dock itself—about 55 spaces in all—could be used as ferry queuing space, saying that the parking spaces are mostly in “unusable” areas of the dock.

Transit advocates weren’t thrilled when Smith filed her lawsuit challenging the waterfront plan, because Smith’s original proposed mitigation plan involved moving buses bound for downtown from West Seattle off the waterfront and onto S. Lander Street, where they’d have to traverse more than 20 traffic lights. “I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made through this sideways approach of a legal challenge where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the [environmental impact statement],” Transportation Choices Coalition director Shefali Ranganathan, who did not receive prior notice that the Alliance had reached an agreement with the city, county, and state, said Monday that she was disappointed that stakeholders like TCC hadn’t been involved in the settlement discussions, which she called “mysterious.”

“I was hoping for something that would bring our heads together, and this process limits that type of collaboration,” Ranganathan said Monday.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “I just don’t understand how we are making commitments about transit capacity so far into the future,” she says. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now. Maybe Link [light rail] will be able to take all this capacity, maybe it won’t.  We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses seems short-sighted.” Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves in the future. “The ferry system is going to change and adapt to the needs of its users, and that’s going to include how people access that facility, she says.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says. “Once rail is extended out to West Seattle, as we’ve done with every segment of rail so far, we would take full advantage of the capacity and speed of rail.”

Ferry queue traffic projection

There are a lot of ifs built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project—the first one in Seattle that Smith, a lifelong resident, can remember—is contingent on a successful five-year process involving the Port, WSDOT, the Alliance, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants, who are supposed to spend five years working together to decide what the post-light rail roadway will look like. That proposal will then have to be approved by a future city council and King County Councils, which are not legally bound to do what the settlement suggests. Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that “Yes, 10 or 12 years from now, somebody else may have to fight this the way I have fought it. But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.”

In addition, the proposal is still probably not enough to address many of the objections raised by the Transportation Choices Coalition, Feet First, and Cascade Bicycle Club in their letter commenting on the draft environmental impact statement last year. At 102 feet, the Pioneer Square section of the new Alaskan Way will be as wide as the reconstructed Mercer Ave. in South Lake Union—a vast, foreboding stretch of barren concrete that is a textbook example of pedestrian-hostile street planning—for a decade. And narrowing this short section, assuming it happens, still won’t address the fundamental issue at the heart of those groups’ objections—that widening roadways induces demand, leading to “immediate growth of vehicle miles traveled on a corridor.”

Smith, for her part, says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, but she’s glad it’s over. “It took a series of long and very painful conversations” to get to a settlement, she says, but “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”

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Best of Crank 2017: My Interview with Barb Poppe

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news, starting with today’s post, an interview I did with Ohio-based homelessness consultant Barb Poppe.

Poppe’s 2016 report on Seattle’s homelessness crisis formed the template for a citywide strategy known as Pathways Home, which emphasizes so-called “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers for formerly homeless people to use on the private market. Critics, including this blog, have argued that rapid rehousing is risky in a housing market as expensive as Seattle’s, that it will exacerbate racial and economic segregation by pushing low-income people of color outside the city, where rent is lower, and that chronically homeless people are unlikely to get a job that pays enough to afford Seattle-area rents in a matter of  months.

This post originally ran on March 16, 2017.

Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced a $275 million levy to address the city’s homelessness crisis that emphasizes temporary housing vouchers on the private market, rather than more-intensive strategies like service-rich transitional housing, to get people off the streets and on their feet. The levy also funds some mental-health and drug treatment services, which Murray noted are “new lines of business” for the city.

The proposal is based largely on recommendations from a Columbus, Ohio-based consultant named Barb Poppe, whose  2016 report on Seattle’s homelessness crisis became the basis for the set of recommendations known as Pathways Home. Poppe’s report and Pathways Home are based on a larger federal shift toward the concept of “housing first”—the idea that housing homeless people should be cities’ top priority, above sobriety, employment, and other metrics that have historically served as barriers to housing—and away from the concept of “housing readiness,” which assumed, paternalistically, that homeless people need to jump through multiple hoops before being “ready” to move indoors.

Rapid rehousing has been somewhat controversial because it assumes that most homeless people will be able to afford market rents within months of moving indoors, which, in Seattle, works out to just under $2,000 a month for the average one-bedroom. Rapid rehousing also represents a shift away from transitional housing, programs that are more expensive and come with more services than a housing voucher, but are less service-intense than permanent supportive housing programs.

Poppe has also been a harsh critic of the city’s policy of creating sanctioned encampments and allowing children to live unsheltered, whether in vans, or encampments, or “tiny houses,” and has spoken out against allowing any additional encampments in city limits—statements that have put her in conflict with the city, in particular homelessness director George Scarola, who has said he has a “professional disagreement” with Poppe about the need for encampments as an interim solution.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Have you had a chance to look at the homelessness levy the mayor proposed this week? Any initial thoughts on the mix of projects the levy would and wouldn’t fund?

Barb Poppe [BP]: I did. I know the mental health and behavioral health stuff is a really Washington-specific issue, because I think you have one of the worst mental health systems in the nation. If  you were another community, I’d say that doesn’t seem like it really fits with addressing homelessness, but I know that’s a current issue [for Seattle]. It looked like the all the other things they were going to invest in were similar to the recommendations that Focus Strategies and I made. It didn’t seem like it was going to be putting up more encampments or RV parks and other things like that. It looked very much like housing plus services.

In my recommendations, I recommended conversion of all the existing shelters to 24/7, low-barrier, housing-focused programs. When I visited Seattle and understood the number of places that you had that were just nighttime-only shelters, what that does is, one, it’s very difficult for people who are staying in them to get back on their feet, because they’re always in transit. And it increases the number of folks who are visibly homeless on your streets because they have nowhere to go. They have all the same problems of someone who has no shelter at all, whether it’s access to phones or meals or sanitation. They have to navigate those all in the course of the day.

ECB: Is it realistic for all the shelters in Seattle to convert to low-barrier, 24-hour shelters?

BP: In a lot of places in the country, that is the model. In Columbus, when I first came here in 1990, we had some nighttime-only shelters, but we moved to all of them being 24/7. I had mistakenly assumed that most places in the country had also done that, but in fact as I traveled the country as head of [the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness] I found that it was a fairly common model that was used with single adults. Families were mostly in 24/7 shelters, but there were places that required families to leave during the day, which I found even more distressing. A lot of the big mass shelters that are run by mission-based groups are going to be nighttime-only, and it’s just not good. What I understood as I talked to the city and All Home [the agency that administers homeless programs in the county] is that there were some unique challenges in that some of the 12-hour shelters were in buildings that were not available during the day, so they expected that in order to do some of those programs, they would have to move locations.

“I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it.”

ECB: The city seems on board with moving in that direction, but they’ve also said that in the meantime, it’s better to have people sleeping in staffed, sanctioned encampments rather than in ad hoc illegal camps throughout the city. You’ve been opposed to that policy. Why?

BP:  I don’t find that an acceptable response to homelessness and would not encourage that, because you don’t get folks in out of the weather. Sanctioned encampments don’t solve anything. They’re not solution-focused. They’re often not good places to be. And they’re a burden on the neighborhoods as well.

Your public dollars should not be used to provide places where people live that don’t even meet the basic UN convention on human rights standards. The fact is that these are places that don’t have sanitation, that don’t have water, that don’t have electricity, that don’t have heat, and that don’t meet basic building codes. And in particular, I was alarmed by the number of children I saw in those places, including quite a few newborn babies. It’s a policy choice. All of those families could be brought inside if that was the choice that was made to do that. The data was showing that you weren’t fully utilizing the family shelters and that you weren’t exiting people to stable housing. It’s just a really ineffective approach.

Family homelessness is a problem in many states and many communities. The concern I had in Seattle was it was the only place where I saw so many children and felt that there wasn’t a lot of community alarm about the notion that infants were in encampments or that children were in tents. It was abnormal compared to other cities I had worked in, like Los Angeles, which has lots and lots of struggles and large numbers of people, but they are very focused on offering and making sure there is same-day shelter for families. What I believe is that the more acceptable this is to your community, the more that your community believes that these sanctioned encampments are a solution to homelessness, and the more you’re going to have to build them. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces. 

In other communities I’ve gone to,  if you have a room that would accommodate two moms and two kids, they would take two moms and two kids, rather than say we’re going to turn that other mom away. Their priority is that no child be outside, whereas in your community, it just seems like you make the choice that families will be on the street. The flow out of the shelters to housing is not good. It’s really, really low results, which indicates that they aren’t housing-focused shelters. It’s not just that the shelters aren’t accommodating families, it’s that they aren’t working to get people into housing. I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it. 

ECB: Another one of the recommendations that came out of your report was that we may have to accept the fact that some people will have to spend more than a third of their income on rent. But that flies in the face of how HUD and every city and state agency in the country sets affordability rates. What’s the reasoning behind saying we may have to stretch our concept of affordability in that manner?

“In designing the city’s rapid rehousing program, I think they have to allow that families have choices about where they want to live, and families will have to weigh the pluses and minuses. It’s not our job to be paternalistic.”

 

BP: The definition of affordability isn’t that they have a voucher and they get it for life and they only pay 30 percent of income. [Formerly homeless people served by rapid rehousing] are still going to have a housing cost burden. All poor people in your community live with a housing burden unless they have a voucher. You have lots of low-income workers who have a housing cost burden. They make it, and they don’t fall into homelessness. Rapid rehousing gets them back on their feet, and in an ideal world, their income goes up and their housing is affordable at 30 percent, but the reality that we’re living in right now is that low-income workers are cost-burdened, but they’re housed. They’re not on the streets. They’re not in shelters. Their kids can go to the same schools. All of those things are much more possible if you’re not homeless. In Seattle, the goal of the homeless programs was to get people to the point that they aren’t cost-burdened, which is an unrealistic expectation in your market. It’s really hard to live [cost-burdened], and I’m not saying that it’s not, but because we don’t have a national policy that says everyone who has a housing need gets a housing voucher and never has to pay more than 30 percent, our goal in the homelessness system has to be to get everyone housed, and hopefully they’re going to be on an income path that provides them some stability.

ECB: The city has said it wants to make it possible for people who are homeless to find housing here, rather than having to move to far-flung suburban parts of the county or nearby counties. But your report and the Focus Strategies report say explicitly that for rapid rehousing to work, a lot of people may have to leave Seattle. How do you respond to the charge that this is furthering the suburbanization of poverty? Don’t people do better when they’re able to stay in their communities, where they’re near job centers, family, and frequent, reliable transit?

BP: The core of the rapid rehousing model is family choice, and that you should never say to a family, ‘You have to move here.’ In the same way that you wouldn’t say, ‘You have to stay in Seattle,’  the city shouldn’t say, ‘We’re not going to move you to Tacoma,’ or wherever. In these other high-cost cities, they do have families who say, ‘I don’t see that our family is going to do well in San Francisco; we’ll be better if we move to an East Bay community where the housing is more affordable.’ So in designing the city’s rapid rehousing program, I think they have to allow that families have choices about where they want to live, and families will have to weigh the pluses and minuses. It’s not our job to be paternalistic. Old-school transitional housing programs are very paternalistic. They say, ‘You will live in this neighborhood, you will go to this program for three days a week, your kids will be in this preschool program.’ Rapid rehousing lets families determine the choices they want to make. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces. 

ECB: Right now, HUD is largely dictating the current move toward rapid rehousing. Do you anticipate that federal guidelines for homeless investments will remain the same with Ben Carson at HUD?

BP: I have no crystal ball on what Carson’s going to do. It’s not even clear to what extent Secretary Carson gets to call the shots. We have made significant progress across the country. We have almost reduced veterans’ homelessness by half, chronic homelessness by large percentage, and family homelessness by 10 percent. My hope is because the homeless assistance programs have been well-managed and produced good results, that they won’t tinker and roll back to the old housing-readiness model, which largely excluded folks who had had any barriers or challenges in their life before they experienced homelessness. And the larger budget issues are really alarming to think about. If we preserve all the homeless programs but lose all the other [housing] programs, that’s terrible as well, because if the Carson-Trump administration cuts the [Section 8 housing] voucher program and the families who are stably housed with housing choice vouchers lose their housing, that’s devastating.

As Labor Loses Clout Nationwide, This Seattle Health Care Workers’ Union Keeps Thriving

This story originally ran in the December 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

It’s 10:30 on a Friday morning in September, and the crowd at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle is on its feet, cheering uproariously as the keynote speaker bounds out onto the stage, “I Am the Fire” by Halestorm blaring over the loudspeakers. Many of the people in the darkened ballroom are sleep-deprived, having arrived by bus late last night or in the early morning hours. But you wouldn’t know it to watch them now—hundreds of them, mostly women of color, wearing Service Employees International Union (SEIU) purple and clapping noisemakers as SEIU 775 president David Rolf emerges to deliver a characteristic barn-burning speech.

“When we were born, 15 years ago, if you worked full-time as a caregiver, you were under the federal poverty line. By the end of this new contract, if you work full-time as a caregiver, you will not be under the federal poverty line!” Rolf thunders. “It doesn’t mean we’ve reached the promised land. It doesn’t mean we’re living in the lap of luxury, checking in to the Four Seasons, flying around in our jets. But what a difference the union can make!”

What a difference 15 years can make. Since SEIU 775 was chartered in 2002—after a bruising legislative battle that culminated in a ballot measure, Initiative 775, giving home care workers the right to unionize, and for the union to negotiate with the state on its members’ behalf—it’s grown from a scrappy, unconventional union representing 1,600 long-term caregivers to arguably the most influential labor organization in state and local politics with 45,000 members, including home care providers, nursing home employees and adult day health care workers. (The group also represents about 1,000 workers in Montana.) That growth has happened during a time when unions’ memberships and influence have been declining precipitously nationwide; currently, just 7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. Today, SEIU’s members contribute 3.2 percent of their paychecks to the union, which uses the money to negotiate for a contract on their behalf and lobby for other pro-worker policies.

In that time, SEIU’s political agenda has also expanded, from an advocate for low-wage, often isolated workers caring for elderly and disabled clients in their homes to a force to be reckoned with on issues ranging from fast-food workers’ wages to Seattle zoning laws.

Rolf has been there through it all. When the 775 chapter was started, Rolf says, home care aides made minimum wage—$7.18 an hour—with no benefits. Although these workers are hired by individuals, they’re paid by Medicaid through a contract with the state, which sets their wages. As individual employees who worked inside private homes, they lacked the ability to organize for better working conditions—until the union came along.

Over time, using tactics such as flooding lawmakers’ fax machines with messages and blocking the door to the governor’s office, that changed, as SEIU 775 won higher wages from the state Legislature, passed an initiative requiring paid training for home care workers and fought back efforts by what Rolf calls “radical extreme groups” to interfere with union organizing.

Sitting in his office in Pioneer Square, the youthful, 48-year-old Rolf recounts war stories from the union’s early years. Like in 2003, when then state Senate majority leader Jim West of Spokane denounced home care workers as “perpetual pathetics,” prompting the union to stage a prayer vigil in front of his house. The following year, when West was running for mayor of Spokane, SEIU 775 sent workers door to door to get out the vote in low-turnout Republican districts helping West win and clearing the way for a more union-friendly Republican, Bill Finkbeiner, to take his place in the Legislature.

“We weren’t necessarily polite, but neither were they,” Rolf says of legislators. “The state had made a set of policy decisions to keep these women in a state of life-threatening poverty as a condition of them being caregivers. Now we had a union. We had some hope. Expectations were raised, and people wanted the Legislature to do the right thing.”

Sherry Byrum, a home care worker whose goddaughter has spina bifida and needs round-the-clock care, has been a member of SEIU 775 since its early days. She says the work that home health workers do is important, but that isn’t reflected in their wages and benefits. “I’ve seen people lose their homes because they couldn’t pay their medical bills when they got hurt on the job,” Byrum says. “A lot of people do [these jobs] pretty much 24/7, 365 days a year.”

SEIU’s tactics—including confronting legislators directly—have been so effective that they’re now mimicked by other unions and community groups. They’ve also been willing to support union-friendly legislators across traditional party lines, endorsing Republicans like former state Sen. Steve Litzow, former state Sen. Don Benton and the late Sen. Andy Hill.

Teresa Mosqueda, a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council and a candidate for Position 8 on the Seattle City Council (election results were not available at press time), says these tactics have served a larger purpose: forcing legislators to recognize that marginalized workers are professionals and a force to be reckoned with. “I think when those in power can kind of close their doors, we have to figure out a way for our voices to be heard through those doors or through the walls, and I think they have done a really good job of that,” Mosqueda says.

Over the past 15 years, SEIU 775 has expanded its portfolio significantly beyond its original mission, throwing its considerable weight around on issues ranging from public subsidies for sports arenas (2006’s Initiative 91, which the union supported) to former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (in a Seattle Times op-ed, Rolf described opponents’ position as “selfishness raised to an art form”).

Perhaps no battle has so defined SEIU 775 to the public as the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which began with contract baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and expanded to fast-food workers in Seattle. It culminated in a joint business-labor agreement to bring a phased-in $15/hour minimum wage to Seattle. (Rolf even wrote a book about it, called The Fight for $15.) After victory at Sea-Tac, where an SEIU-backed minimum-wage initiative passed by a mere 77 votes in 2013, the battle moved to Seattle, where fast-food worker strikes and mass demonstrations led then Mayor Murray to put together a joint business-labor task force that crafted a compromise bill that would phase in a $15/hour minimum wage over several years. Rolf served on that task force.

“The fight for $15 originated in an industry outside our own, but we joyfully embraced it and took it up as our cause,” Rolf says. “And whether it’s housing policy or tax policy or immigration policy or Black Lives Matter or subsidies to basketball teams, we’ve always tried to be a civically conscious organization and to not only be on the cutting edges of the industry and issues in our direct line of sight, but also income inequality as a whole.”

SEIU 775’s rise, of course, has not been without controversy. Other progressive groups have grumbled that the union—and Rolf in particular—gets more than its share of credit for battles that were won by coalitions, not individual unions or their charismatic leaders. Former Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who had a front-row seat for the $15 wage debate at city hall, says SEIU’s work on the minimum wage was “necessary, but not sufficient” to pass the compromise. “[United Food and Commercial Workers] and the Economic Opportunity Institute [a progressive think tank] also played major roles, and I don’t think it would have happened without all of them,” Licata says.

Conservative groups have also taken aim at the union. The Freedom Foundation, a think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government,” has spent years waging legal war against SEIU 775, seeking to tame its influence by convincing its members to stop paying their dues, which would cripple the group’s influence in Olympia and Seattle. For years, the Freedom Foundation has been Wile E. Coyote to SEIU’s Roadrunner, almost forcing the union into a corner, only to be outsmarted at the last moment with an unexpected roadblock.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory union fees violated the free speech rights of home health care workers in Illinois, dealing a blow to unions like SEIU 775 that represent “quasi-public” employees. SEIU has since made union dues voluntary, but the Freedom Foundation and other conservative groups argue that they haven’t done enough to let their members know they can opt out. In 2014, the Freedom Foundation began canvassing SEIU’s members to urge them to stop paying dues, and SEIU lost a lawsuit seeking to keep its membership list private.

The twist? In 2016, the union struck back with Initiative 1501. While it was billed on the ballot as an initiative to protect seniors from abuse and privacy violations, what it actually does is exempt SEIU’s membership list from state public disclosure law. It was approved by 71 percent of voters.  “Initiative 1501 was one of the most effective ballot measures that any of us have ever seen,” says Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation. “I’m not surprised that it passed by the margin it did, but it’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of voters were not cued in to the details of the measure.”

Rolf says the tactics of groups like the Freedom Foundation give SEIU no choice but to get, as Nelsen puts it, “clever.” “When people knock on your door and say you should drop out of the union, is it because someone’s paying them to help you save $30 a month on union dues,” Rolf asks rhetorically, “or is it because they have an agenda that’s about undermining the only democratic voice that workers in our country still have?”

That voice, as anyone who has observed the U.S. economy in the past 50 years knows, is shrinking, and SEIU is not exempt from the larger forces that are making that happen, including an increasingly fractured workforce, the rise of involuntary part-time and contract work, and the growing divide between information-sector millionaires and the workforce that serves them lattes and picks up their trash. The U.S. labor movement formed at a time when most people worked for large companies and most industries were unionized; today, in a globalized economy that places shareholder value above all else, that system no longer functions the way it did.

Rolf argues that like all unions, SEIU will have to adapt and figure out new ways to organize if it hopes to survive in the 21st-century economy. Going back, he insists, is not an option. “Every time unions get smaller, the middle class gets smaller,” he told the crowd at the convention center. “For 40 years, American workers have been getting screwed because they don’t have the collective power to stand up for ourselves, and our failed system of industrial relations, built for the factory economy of 1935, is just not going to cut it in the 21st century. We have to invent something new.”

Rolf doesn’t know exactly what that will look like, but his work organizing a disenfranchised group of independent contractors into a statewide powerhouse has convinced him that even in an increasingly fractured 21st-century economy, unions will be part of that solution.

Crashes Up, Biking Down in New Seattle Traffic Report

The annual traffic report from the Seattle Department of Transportation, which measures everything from how many cars are moving through the city to how many people are commuting by bike to how many pedestrians are injured and killed on Seattle’s streets, came out last week, and the news is not great for people who bike or walk in the city—that is, just about everyone.

Bike ridership is down (by 2.6%), the number of drivers injuring or killing cyclists and pedestrians is up, and the number of total collisions is up for the third year in a row—not an auspicious sign for the city’s “Vision Zero” plan, which aims to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. The citywide collision rate increased 6.3 percent over the last year; the rate of bike collisions stayed steady and the rate of collisions with pedestrians went up. Overall, 171 people were seriously injured and 20 were killed in collisions on Seattle streets last year, a 16.5 percent increase over 2015.

With “Vision Zero” in sight, serious injury and fatality crashes have barely budged for the past five years.

Some of the main “contributing circumstances” for collisions, in terms of sheer numbers, were: Inattention, “unknown driver distraction,” failure to grant right of way, following too closely, speeding, “improper turn,’ and driving under the influence of alcohol. Other circumstances that led to collisions: “Apparently asleep,” “driver grooming,” “driver reading or writing,” “had taken medication,” and driving on the wrong side of the road. Most of the pedestrians who were involved in collisions (57%) were in marked crosswalks when they were hit, and most were hit during daylight hours, not at night or dusk, when conventional wisdom says pedestrians are most likely to be hit (a trope that enables auto advocates and drive-time radio hosts to blame people in crosswalks for getting themselves run into). Bike collisions followed the same general trend, except that cyclists were less likely to get hit during winter months, when there are fewer of them on the roads. The color a cyclist was wearing when he or she was involved in a collision appears to be largely irrelevant—of 246 collisions for which clothing visibility was recorded, just 43 cyclists were wearing dark-colored clothing, including crashes that happened during the day and at night.

The offending chart

The report notes that the city’s Pedestrian Master Plan identified several locations for the city to monitor and report on every year, to see if people are speeding more or less at those locations. Unfortunately, this year’s report inexplicably fails to pull out information on those locations, as previous reports have done, so that people who pay attention to traffic trends can compare it to reports from previous years. To find out whether speeds have gone down on, say, Rainier Ave. S—historically one of the most dangerous corridors in the city, and a focus of a lot of Pedestrian Master Plan work since 2010—someone reading the report will have to scroll through pages of data in one of its appendices. This is not an insignificant issue, because a major point (if not the point) of tracking whether, and by how much, drivers are speeding is to see if things are getting better or worse. (You can dig through the appendices to find each segment individually, but who’s going to do that? Me, sure, but who else?) What the report does include is a chart that indicates the roads where the “85th percentile speed” (the speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers travel) is highest—a basically useless number in itself, because whether someone is speeding depends on the speed limit. Going  52 mph on a 50 mph highway is barely speeding, whereas going 45 in a 20 mph school zone amounts to reckless endangerment.

Dig into the report yourself, which includes lots of additional data about crashes, travel speeds, and traffic volumes, here.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

The Real Surprise in Durkan’s Staffing Announcement Was Who Wasn’t Mentioned

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Last Friday, MayorJenny Durkan announced the departure of Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who got in trouble over his role in promoting a now-defunct bikeshare company affiliated with his former employer, and Patricia Lally, head of the city’s Office for Civil Rights. Durkan replaced both Kubly and Lally with interim directors from outside the city—former SDOT director Goran Sparrman and former Youth Violence Initiative director Mariko Lockhart. Kubly reportedly lobbied hard to keep his job, but that was probably never in the cards—his fans saw a visionary, big-picture leader, but his detractors inside and outside the city saw an outsider (from Austin by way of D.C. and Chicago) who threw elbows at too many people.

Durkan also announced a number of department heads she plans to keep, including Office of Housing director Steve Walker, Human Services Department director Catherine Lester, and Department of Education and Early Learning director Dwane Chappelle.

One name that wasn’t on either list was Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland, the onetime Georgetown neighborhood activist who emerged as one of the most transformative figures of the last four years. Nyland reorganized and attempted to remove the deadweight from DON (her email signature: “New Day, New DON!”, which had been the city department where miscellaneous programs went to languish, and to reimagine the concept of “neighborhoods” itself, to include the renters, immigrants, and newcomers who actually make up the majority of the city. Nyland’s dedication to inclusiveness riled the old-guard neighborhood movement—single-family homeowners, mostly white baby boomers, who tended to oppose changes that would add new people, particularly “transient” renters, to their” neighborhoods.

Those old-guard activists lost big during the last election—NIMBY darlings Jon Grant, Pat Murakami, and Bob Hasegawa lost decisively—but are hoping Durkan won’t realize that their time has passed.

The biggest rift between Nyland and the old guard came when Murray announced that the city would no longer fund or staff the 13 neighborhood district councils, and would dedicate the money they had spent supporting the councils to other purposes. Nyland took the brunt of the blame, as neighborhood activists accused her of failing to get their input and shutting them out of the system they have dominated for decades.  On the campaign trail, Durkan talked about “bringing back the district councils,” and said she thinks “the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs.”

They haven’t—they’ve just started listening to underrepresented people, too—and as Nyland has pointed out, when you’re used to being the only voice in the room, inclusion can feel like an affront. But neighborhoods are made up of renters, immigrants, night-shift workers, and young people, too. It would be a shame if complaints from activists who want to restore things to the “good old days” of Seattle circa 1990 were successful at pushing out an effective advocate whose work is just getting started.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The Dizzying Array of Potential Pedestrian Treatments

1. I’ll be on KUOW today at noon talking about sexual harassment, tolling I-405, and more with Civic Cocktail host (and ex-Seattle Times editorial board member) Joni Balter and former state attorney general Rob McKenna. Who won’t be on KUOW tomorrow? Tavis Smiley, who was suspended by PBS this week after an investigation found “multiple, credible allegations” of sexual misconduct by the host. The allegations include having multiple sexual relationships with subordinates, some of whom believed their “employment status was linked to the status of a sexual relationship with Smiley,” and creating a “verbally abusive and threatening environment.” Smiley has responded by denying that he “groped, coerced, or exposed myself inappropriately” to any of his coworkers, which, it should be noted, are not the acts he is accused of committing.

KUOW pulled Smiley’s radio show (which is separate from his public TV show) voluntarily, and will run the second hour of “Here and Now” in its place.

2. George Scarola, former mayor Ed Murray’s director of homelessness, made an odd comment the other day about his current status at the city. “Up until the new mayor took office—Mayor Durkan—I was the director of homelessness. I promptly submitted my resignation,” Scarola said, adding that he did so “just to give her a clean shot at exactly what she wants to do, and that hasn’t had any effect yet.” Scarola is still at the city—in fact, he attended a Ballard District Council meeting where neighbors complained about the ongoing presence of homeless people at the Ballard Commons park just last night—but his position is now at the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, not the mayor’s office.

3. Jessyn Farrell, the state-legislator-turned-mayoral candidate who came in fourth in the August primary election, is going to work for Civic Ventures, the progressive think tank founded by Seattle venture capitalist and billionaire do-gooder Nick Hanauer. Earlier this year, Hanauer said he would bankroll the campaign for a homelessness levy proposed by then-mayor Ed Murray; although the city later abandoned that proposal in favor of a joint city-county proposal that kicked the conversation about a homelessness tax into 2018, Hanauer will likely be involved in that campaign as well. Farrell, who also headed up the Transportation Choices Coalition before she was elected to represent the 46th legislative district in the state house, did not say what her title will be, but did say that she’ll be working on “rebuilding the middle class” and “making cities work for people.”

4. If you want to get an idea of of how complicated traffic planners’ jobs are, and how hard it can be to balance road users’ needs and rights without creating ridiculously out-of-whack hierarchies (where drivers can move freely and pedestrians are constantly at risk) or unintended consequences (long periods where pedestrians are just stuck waiting at corners, unable to move in any direction), check out this presentation that Seattle Department of Transportation transportation operations manager Ahmed Darrat presented to the Pedestrian Advisory Board on walk signal timing last night.  Twenty minutes went by as Darrat explained eleven ways SDOT can shift the balance of mobility between cars and pedestrians—assuming slower walking speeds near hospitals and retirement homes, giving pedestrians the option of pushing a button for several seconds to extend the walk time, “passive detection” of pedestrians using thermal sensors—and then Darrat switched to the next slide, which listed another dozen options. (More details on the dizzying array of potential pedestrian treatments here).

The biggest point of contention right now in conversations about how quickly pedestrians should be able to cross the street is the existence of so-called “beg buttons”—buttons a pedestrian (or, in many cases, cyclist) must push to alert the traffic system that cars need to stop to allow people to cross the road. The problem with beg buttons isn’t just that they feel insulting—cars don’t have to ask permission to drive, because we’ve built a system that either assumes they will be there or that senses them when they roll up to an intersection—but that they contribute to a culture in which people walking and cycling are an anomaly on the road. Beg buttons give drivers who hit pedestrians a built-in excuse—he didn’t have the walk sign, officer!—empower cities to crack down on “jaywalking,” and contribute to the overall sense that cars rule the road. And if a pedestrian isn’t aware that they won’t get permission to cross the street unless they push the button, they may get stuck waiting through several light cycles while cars move through unimpeded. Blind people, people with limited English reading skills, people who can’t read, and other people with sensory impairments are particularly impacted by beg button requirements.

Darrat said federal standards require accessible pedestrian signals at every intersection; push buttons just happen to be the only option currently available to SDOT; however, he said, “we’re committed to looking at how we treat pedestrian signals from a more global perspective and coming up with some ideas as to how we’re going to take steps toward standardizing it” so pedestrians don’t have to figure out dozens of potential signal situations—different walk cycles by time of day; half cycles for cars; “pedestrian recall”; leading pedestrian intervals”—to cross the street. Imagine if instead of figuring out whether to push the button and if it’s safe to run and whether the signal will change when you push it if the light’s already green and how long you’ll have to wait if you don’t make this cycle, you could just go out into the street at regular intervals. You know, like cars do.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.