The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” Meeting May Be a Solo Affair

Council member Kshama Sawant’s rule-violating council committee meeting/online rally Thursday evening is looking more and more like it will be a solo affair: Tammy Morales, the co-sponsor of Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” legislation, will not attend.

Sawant decided to take up the legislation in her Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee in violation of council rules that say legislation can only be heard in the committee to which it was referred. (In this case, that’s the budget committee). She’s holding an online meeting on Thursday, which attorneys for the city and state say is a violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order barring online meetings on non-COVID matters. And her meeting will not have a quorum, which is a third violation: Council rules adopted this year require a minimum of three committee members to hold any committee meeting.

On Monday, Sawant rejected all these arguments, telling colleagues during the council’s weekly briefing that she considered them “legally unsupportable” and in violation of “common sense.”

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Sawant’s proposal would increase payroll taxes on the top-grossing 800 businesses in the city, raising an estimated $500 million a year for low-income housing. By borrowing from existing funds that are dedicated to other purposes, it would have also provided $200 million up front to pay for COVID-19 stimulus checks to low-income people. 

Although an emergency declaration by Gov. Jay Inslee’s bars online meetings on non-COVID matters, Sawant argued that her bill qualified as a response to the pandemic, because of the up-front payments and the fact that housing is an ongoing emergency. The city attorney and state attorney general disagreed, as did council president Lorena González, who took it off the council agenda until the governor lifts the order, budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, former assistant city attorney-turned-council member Andrew Lewis, and renters’ rights committee member Debora Juarez.

Morales’ office did not provide a reason for her decision not to participate in the hearing in Sawant’s committee, although the city attorney’s office has reportedly advised council members that participating in meetings that violate Inslee’s order could open them up to personal legal liability. Lewis and Mosqueda have both said publicly that they will not attend, and Juarez confirmed today that she won’t be there, either. Pedersen did not immediately respond to an email asking whether he will join the meeting, but even if he did—a long shot, since he opposes the underlying legislation—the committee would not have a quorum.

Sawant could decide to limit the legislation to the part that responds directly to the COVID emergency—the $200 million fund for immediate direct payments to low-income people, which would be funded by borrowing from the city against future tax proceeds. However, that would not allow for an ongoing tax after the crisis is over, which is the main point of the “tax Amazon” legislation.

There are two other plausible endgames. First, the council could take it up through the normal process once the governor lifts his order. Sawant is busy burning bridges left and right, accusing colleagues who are allies on this issue, like Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold, of worshiping at the altar of “big business,” so that possibility is dimming. Second, tax supporters could put the proposal up to a citywide vote. That would require them to gather signatures in person—or, as Kevin Schofield has pointed out, rewrite the city charter to allow online signatures, a move that would itself require a public vote.

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

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In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”

Seattle Council Legislation Would Rein In Encampment Sweeps During Pandemic

A few of the 68 tents I counted along South Weller St. between Rainier Ave. S and 12th Ave. S. The city’s Human Services Department plans to remove this encampment next week, along with a smaller one nearby.

City council member Tammy Morales, whose South Seattle district includes two encampments in the International District that the Seattle Human Services Department plans to remove next week, has introduced legislation that would restrict the circumstances under which Mayor Jenny Durkan can order encampment sweeps during the pandemic.

The proposal comes after Durkan announced that “all encampment removal operations have been suspended,” with exceptions for “extreme” circumstances, on March 17. Although the directive gave five examples of situations that would qualify as “extreme,” including tents in the middle of roads or completely blocking a sidewalk, it did not actually define “extreme,” allowing sweeps to continue on an essentially ad hoc basis.

The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, would prohibit the city from removing encampments except when the encampment poses an “immediate hazard” (as defined here); blocks a curb ramp, bike lane, or most of a sidewalk; presents a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure; obstructs the entrance or exist of a building; or is located in a children’s play area. The city could also remove encampments that constitute “an active health threat,” but only if the people living there have been offered “appropriate public health resources” that have failed to resolve the threat, and if “relocating would resolve the health threat.”

Mosqueda says she added the public health language after Durkan’s office cited “hepatitis A and COVID” as public health reasons to remove encampments, without explaining whether they were referring to diagnosed cases of COVID-19 or merely the concern that people living in encampments aren’t staying six feet apart.

“If they are citing COVID as a reason [for removing tents], that is very problematic, because we need to know where those folks are so that we can respond immediately and get people the appropriate public health resources that they need,” rather than “dispersing them throughout the city,” Mosqueda says.

Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Navigation Team has not provided hotel rooms to people at the encampments it has removed. Instead, the team has promised spaces in mass shelters such as the Navigation Center or spots in tiny house villages, a form of authorized encampment where people sleep in individual “tiny houses” but share restrooms, eating areas, and other common facilities.

“We know that congregate shelters are counter to what the CDC guidance has said, and it is not realistic, even in congregate shelters that have beds six feet apart,” to keep COVID from spreading, Mosqueda says.

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“We need to make sure that the city is sticking to what we declared, which was that during this crisis, we were not going to be moving people, and I think that the fact that this continues to happen is really beginning to erode the trust in the city,” Morales says. “The mayor can make al the pronouncements she wants, but if HSD isn’t actually following those declarations, then we need to make sure that there’s a policy in place.”

Morales says that unlike the situation in Ballard, where an indignant online petition signed by thousands of people and an incendiary KOMO report may have helped tip the mayor’s hand, the community around the two International District encampments is not clamoring for sweeps. “People want solutions to the problem,” Morales says. The city could have partnered with Co-LEAD, a new program that places people experiencing homelessness in hotels and connects them to services, but chose not to do so—a decision Morales calls “a failure of leadership” by the mayor and HSD. “If there is a program that is set up that can provide people a safe place to move to and provide them with other resources that can help them get stable, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t do that,” she says.

Because of the COVID emergency, the council is barred from passing most legislation that is not directly related to the pandemic. Morales’ legislation, which requires seven votes to pass, would expire at the end of 2020 or when the city state of civil emergency ends, whichever is earlier. The full council will vote on the legislation on Monday, May 25.

City Expands Access to Downtown Hotel, Adding About Five Previously Ineligible Guests and Raising Questions About Eligibility

Back in March, the city of Seattle rented out every room at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle for three months at a cost of around $3 million. (The total cost will be higher if more people actually stay there, which is why the city’s original figures were higher.) Initially, the hotel’s 155 rooms were reserved for first responders such as police and firefighters responding to the COVID crisis; when only a handful of first responders ended up using the rooms, the city opened 100 of them up to nurses and other medical personnel, which increased the total number of people who had stayed at the hotel to 17 by April 18. Those 17 people stayed at the hotel an average of nine days, according to the city, for a total of about 153 room nights over the first three weeks the hotel was in use—the equivalent of one night with a completely full hotel.

“If any of our members call and say, ‘I need a hotel tonight,’ or this week, or whatever, we check and verify their membership and then route them to either Seattle or Bellevue,” where King County has reserved rooms in another hotel. —Amy Clark, Communications Director, SEIU 1199NW

As of last week, according the city, the hotel had taken on an additional 35 guests—most of them health care workers—for a total of 52 guests in the first seven weeks of operation. According to the city, these 52 people stayed an average of 10 nights, for a total of 520 room nights over seven weeks—a period when the city actually paid for nearly 7,600 room nights.

Homeless advocates, including the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, have urged the city to allow direct service workers, such as people working at shelters, to access some of the rooms that are sitting empty. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office says that the city has since “made the Executive Pacific Hotel available to shelter service providers,” by “working with SEIU 1199NW and other union partners.

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SEIU Healthcare 1199NW represents workers at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and SEIU 925 represents education and child care workers. So far, according 1199 communications director Amy Clark, 1199NW has placed “four or five” DESC employees in rooms at the hotel.

Most front-line homeless service workers are not unionized, raising questions about why the city has decided to provide hotel rooms only through the health-care unions instead of allowing service providers with non-unionized workers to ask for them directly—especially with a large hotel fully paid for and sitting mostly empty.

“If any of our members call and say, ‘I need a hotel tonight,’ or this week, or whatever, we check and verify their membership and then route them to either Seattle or Bellevue,” Clark says. King County has reserved a block of 80 rooms for health care workers at a 176-room hotel in Bellevue for 12 weeks, for which they are paying $89 a night—less than half of what the city is paying per room at the Executive Pacific, and (at around $600,000 total) about one-fifth of what the city has committed to spend on the Seattle hotel over an equivalent period.

Most front-line homeless service workers are not unionized, raising questions about why the city has decided to provide hotel rooms only through the health-care unions instead of allowing service providers with non-unionized workers to ask for them directly—especially with a large hotel fully paid for and sitting mostly empty.

Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the King County Coalition on Homelessness, says the city seems to be needlessly excluding essential workers from hotel rooms it has paid for. “It can only be a matter of race, class, and bureaucratic insensitivity or incompetence that explains why public dollars are being used to pay for empty rooms when [human service providers] need to use them” and are unable to access them easily.

King County’s process for routing people to its Bellevue hotel rooms does not require unions to coordinate or approve stays. Instead, service providers designate a person to submit requests for hotel rooms, and that person emails a single person at the county when one of their employees (unionized or not) needs a room.

As County Opens More Non-Congregate Shelter to Prevent Spread of COVID, City Plans to Remove Two More Encampments

Nearly two years after King County first announced that it planned to open a modular shelter for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property in Interbay, the

project is almost ready to open for a new purpose: Providing non-congregate shelter for between 45 and 50 homeless men over 55 from the St. Martin de Porres shelter, run by Catholic Community Services. The modular buildings, which are essentially trailers with windows, fans, and high-walled cubicles to provide privacy and protection from disease transmission between the four men who will share each unit, were originally supposed to be dorm-style shelters housing up to eight people on beds or cots.

The project, which will include eight individual showers, 10 single-stall restrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, and a community room with a meal delivery area, cost $7 million, up from a 2018 projection of $4.5 million. Operating the site will cost around $2 million a year.

“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus”—King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County has focused much of its response to homelessness during the COVID emergency on moving people out of mass shelters—where, County Executive Dow Constantine pointed out Thursday, “we’re likely to have runaway infections before you know it”—and into individual hotel and motel rooms or other non-congregate temporary housing.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID emergency unless they can offer each person “individual housing,” not space in congregate shelter, to prevent the virus from spreading. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the federal guidance says.

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“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus,” Constantine said. “We continue to test [people living in] relocated shelters who are in hotels and would be in facilities like this, and we are finding very little if any transmission of the disease.” At the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is serving as temporary housing for people who had been staying in the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s main shelter in downtown Seattle, 177 people have been tested for COVID-19; zero have tested positive.

The city has focused its response to homelessness on adding more congregate shelter spaces so that people living in mass shelters can sleep further apart, and on providing referrals to shelter for people at the encampments it removes, which the city says are limited to those that cause a public health or public safety risk. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan took issue with the notion that the city and county had adopted different approaches. “There is no ‘or’ here,” she said. “We are taking every approach we can and adding significant additional financial resources from the city to make sure that we are bringing as many people inside as we can.”

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” —Centers for Disease Control

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers, has removed at least two large encampments in recent weeks—one outside the Navigation Center shelter in the International District and one at the Ballard Commons park. In both cases, the city said the encampments posed a public safety and health risk, because people were congregating in violation of state and city orders. In the case of the Commons, the city said that a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 17 homeless people in the Ballard area endangered the safety of people living in and around the park.

“The CDC guidance made very clear that our number one priority would be outreach to people experiencing homelessness, to provide them hygiene, to provide them information, and to try to bring them inside,” Durkan said. “But if there are areas where there is a public safety or public health [issue], we will try to mitigate against that threat.”

The city has said that there were beds in enhanced shelters (24/7 shelters with amenities such as case management and the ability to stay with partners or pets) available for every person living at the Commons, although the city’s official count of 40 residents is significantly lower than estimates provided by both people living at the site and by homeless service providers at the Bridge Care Center across the street. “Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside,” Durkan said.

“Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside.” —Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan 

Next week, the Seattle Human Services Department’s Navigation Team will remove two separate encampments in the International District. On two recent visits to both sites, I counted a total of at least 80 tents, the vast majority of them on South Weller Street between 12th Ave. S. and S. Dearborn St. Durkan did not respond directly to a question about whether the city had sufficient enhanced shelter beds for 80 people. “We will continue to do our best, and we will make offers to everybody who we try to relocate. We want to put compassion first but it has to work with the policy of public safety and public health in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

The Public Defender Association has offered to place people displaced when the city removes encampments in hotel rooms through its new Co-LEAD program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by providing case management and temporary non-congregate housing during the COVID crisis. The city did not take them up on their offer, although Durkan has signed off on the program in principle and name-checked it during Thursday’s press conference. Given that the International District encampments are scheduled for removal starting next Tuesday, it appears unlikely at this point that the people living in these encampments will be candidates for Co-LEAD either.

Using Private Funding, King County Provides Alcohol and Cigarettes to Patients at Isolation Sites

Beer, Mug, Refreshment, Beer Mug, Drink, Bavaria
Image via Pixabay.

King County has been providing alcohol, tobacco, and, until two weeks ago, cannabis products to some patients with diagnosed or potential COVID-19 infections who are staying at the county’s isolation/quarantine and assessment/recovery sites, The C is for Crank has learned. These sites serve people who are homeless or who cannot isolate safely at home.

The program, which is not funded through public dollars, is similar to efforts in other cities, including San Francisco, to enable patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus to remain isolated safely while mitigating or preventing withdrawal symptoms.

“Limited and controlled quantities of alcohol and nicotine have been provided by the health and behavioral health clinicians on site as part of clinical management of withdrawal symptoms and harm reduction practices to support patients to safely stay in isolation,” Department of Human and Community Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says. “In all cases, this clinical review and approval for a requested item is required.”

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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.

While programs like King County’s have been controversial in other cities, they are based in the principles of harm reduction, a set of strategies at reducing the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use. Other examples of harm reduction include methadone clinics, needle exchanges, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake project—not to mention things like nicotine gum and marijuana as an alternative to heroin.

Hamilton did not say how many people had received alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis products, but said that the department’s director, Leo Flor, has been paying for these items out of his own pocket while the county secures “private foundation funding as a more sustainable approach to funding moving forward.” It’s illegal to spend public funds on alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. Hamilton was not able to immediately provide details about how much these “initial harm reduction supplies” had cost.

Providing people with substances they would otherwise seek out makes it easier to keep people from spreading COVID-19 in the community surrounding the county’s quarantine and isolation sites, and makes it more likely that people will stay at those sites for their entire isolation period instead of leaving against medical advice. In the case of alcohol, it also may be saving lives—for heavy, daily drinkers, withdrawing from alcohol without specialized medical intervention can cause seizures, heart failure, and death.

“For those who cannot do so, or who do not have a home, the County has created isolation and recovery sites,” Hamilton said. “We try to keep guests safe, stable and comfortable so they will stay the entire time, and harm reduction is one strategy that helps to achieve that goal for some of our guests.”

I have asked for more details about funding for this program, including how much DCHS director Flor has spent out of his own pocket, and will update this post when I learn more.

Six Weeks After City Announced Plans for 50-Bed Shelter, Southwest Teen Life Center Opens to Eight Homeless Youth

More than six weeks after the city publicly announced that it planned to convert the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle into a temporary shelter for 50 people by early April, the new shelter finally opened on Friday—with just five young adults as guests. (According to the city, three more had moved in by Monday). The residents of the new expansion shelter had been staying at YouthCare’s overnight shelter in Southeast Seattle, which has a (cramped) capacity of 20 clients under ordinary, non-COVID conditions.

When COVID started forcing shelter operators to find more space for people to sleep, Youthcare development and communications officer Jody Waits said, it became clear that “our choices were: Cut services in half, or let’s see if we can find a bigger space.”

“What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

The shelter’s clients are mostly from Southeast Seattle, which was one reason the agency scoured the area for a suitable temporary location before moving to a location seven miles, and an hour’s bus ride, away. Eventually, it came down to the Teen Life Center or a disused funeral home in South Seattle that would require extensive retrofits. Shelter clients and staff considered both options, and ultimately picked West Seattle.

“Our clients in that space [on Rainier] are so highly tethered on a community level to that neighborhood that moving out felt really impossible to consider,” but eventually, “we realized that despite all of the desire to stay in South Seattle, as opposed to Southwest Seattle, we just weren’t going to find an option that we could do fast enough” in the area, Waits said.

Before YouthCare moved the shelter, they tried to downsize, finding temporary housing for some residents and expediting permanent housing for others. That left just a handful of people—those who truly had nowhere else to go—to move into the Teen Life Center, which has been closed to the public since March 13.

The city has confirmed that the center will be staffed by employees from Seattle’s parks department and patrolled by guards from Phoenix Security, a private security firm that  charges the city $90 an hour to provide security at two temporary shelters in the Central District and on Capitol Hill.

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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.

A spokesman for the city said the space would “shelter up to 30 young adults” once it gets up to full capacity. Separately, an HSD spokesman forwarded an email from the city staffer who is leading the Teen Life Center effort, who wrote that HSD had “set a deadline for full utilization of 20 participants by [the] week of May 18.” 

Waits says it’s unlikely the temporary shelter will ever have 30 clients, which is 50 percent more than the shelter had when it was located in a convenient, familiar location. “Our contract doesn’t support provision for 30 [young adults], we’re not compensated to take care of 30 young people and … we don’t have the staffing for 30,” she said.

As for the lower number:  “Everyone is hopeful that we will get back up to that 20-youth threshold.” But there’s no way to force young adults to come to the shelter, or stay there—a problem Waits expects to become more acute when the weather turns warm and the city starts to reopen.

“Good weather changes young people’s decisions,” she said. “What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

Early on in the COVID crisis, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department frequently claimed that the city and county had jointly created “1,900 new temporary housing options.” These “options,” as I reported at the time, consisted mostly of hospital and isolation/recovery beds that were not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness, plus shelter beds that had been temporarily moved to new locations so that people could sleep six feet apart. But they also included beds that never actually opened—including 50 at the Teen Life Center. The Loyal Heights Community Center, site of another 50 of the 1,900 beds announced in March, remains closed.

Hotel-Based Intervention Program Will Expand to Serve Seattle’s Homeless Population

Tents line a street in the International District on Saturday, May 9, 2020.

The Durkan Administration, which has been reluctant to spend city resources putting homeless people in hotels, has signed off on the expansion of the Public Defender Association’s new Co-LEAD program, which provides hotel rooms, case management, food, cell phones, and other necessities to people experiencing homelessness in King County, to include the city of Seattle. Co-LEAD is an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for people involved in low-level criminal activity, and is aimed at reducing criminal activity at a time when legal options for making money are scarce and setting clients up for success once the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed.

Co-LEAD started last month in Burien, where LEAD partnered with local police to identify people living in parks without access to basics like food and toilets, and now serves people exiting the King County Jail system. The program has secured about 50 hotel rooms in three cities, including Seattle.

The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was removed.

The program targets people who need case management and who are also at risk of ending up in jail without intervention—people like those who were living at the Ballard Commons, where the city removed a large encampment two weeks ago. Participants get temporary hotel rooms, access to gift cards for basic needs, help with housing searches, and physical and behavioral health care through an in-house provider.

One goal of the program is getting people connected to services. Another is simply getting them through the COVID-19 crisis—something that’s hard enough to do in a private house, much less a crowded shelter with limited or no access to entertainment . Something as simple as access to television can make a huge difference in a person’s mental health during lockdown, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says. “There’s no question that that’s  a stress alleviation tool that we’re all using right now,” and it’s especially helpful “for people with anxiety and certain mental conditions that respond well to distraction,” Daugaard said. 

The program isn’t meant to be long-term, nor is it for everyone—a misconception that LEAD has had to combat in Burien, where word of mouth created excess demand for the program.

“It’s not a come-one, come-all program—it needs to have a targeted population,” said PDA deputy director Jesse Benet, who set up Co-LEAD over three weeks. “The whole goal is to get people to shelter in place in hotels, to support them while trying to figure out a longer-term plan.” For example, Co-LEAD case managers might help people get their federal stimulus checks, connect them with medical care and treatment programs, and getting them back on Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program, Benet 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.

The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp—which had been a target of frequent neighborhood complaints, an online petition, and a sensationalistic story on KOMO TV—was swept. However, the city did agree last week to partner with the program in the future, which could lead to hotel room placements for some of those living in crowded outdoor conditions in Pioneer Square or near the Navigation Center in the International District, where a large encampment now stretches along the length of S. Weller St. 

Many homeless service providers and advocates have pushed for hotels as an alternative to crowded shelters at a time when COVID continues to spread rapidly in the community. But they’ve also started asking what comes next. Providers have long argued that crowded shelters are inhumane as a long-term solution to homelessness, but the Seattle area has failed to invest in sufficient housing to get its 12,000-plus homeless residents out of shelters and off the streets. Hotels could be part of the solution.

Certain aspects of a hotel-based approach to homelessness would have to be worked out, including which hotels, how they’d be funded, and who would work there (regular hotel staff? Homeless service providers? A combination of both?) But Daugaard says she can imagine a future in which governments fund hotels as a interim step between homelessness and housing even after the immediate COVID emergency is over. “Hotels, to me, are the game-changer,” Daugaard said. “In a landscape where a pure lack of units is the main barrier to a housing-first strategy for alleviating mass homelessness, suddenly there may be much closer to enough units, at least as a bridge to a more permanent plan,” while potentially helping hotels and hotel workers as well.

The Seattle City Council will get an overview of the Co-LEAD program at its 9:30 am briefings meeting tomorrow.

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”