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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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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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. 

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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.

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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”

As COVID-19 Rages, Cities Struggle to Move People from Shelters into Safer Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square.

This excerpt is from a piece I wrote for Huffington Post, where you can read the entire story.

Ordinarily, the atmosphere in the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter in Seattle was just this side of chaos. During the day, men and women crowded into the community room and hung out in a narrow corridor known as the “bowling alley,” arguing, sleeping and jockeying for space.

At night, the clients settled into metal bunks without pillows or sheets, trying to sleep through the sounds and smells of dozens of other people all around them.

These days, though, the space is quiet. Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC began reducing capacity, and in early March, the city moved the remaining 129 residents to an exhibition hall near the Space Needle. One month later, King County moved them to a Red Lion hotel in Renton, a suburb just southeast of Seattle. The move gave them access to real beds, private showers, and three meals a day ― amenities that were unimaginable before COVID-19.

For some, it’s the first time they’ve slept in a bed, in a room with four walls and a door that locks, in years. The difference, both physically and psychologically, is profound. “Staying at the shelter downtown, you’re always at risk. People are stealing from you. There’s junkies shooting up by you. People just want to attack you,” said Michael C., who asked HuffPost to use his first name and last initial only to protect his privacy. “And here it’s a safe place.”

“I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Dan Williams, DESC’s shelter operations manager, said that after staying in the hotel for just a week or so, Michael was unrecognizable ― so much so that Williams followed him down the hallway when he walked in one day, thinking he wasn’t supposed to be there.

“To see this individual, compared to the way that I knew him a month ago, I didn’t know who he was,” Williams said. “His whole presentation was different. He felt comfortable to shower, because it wasn’t in this group setting where anybody could blow through that door at any second.”

Marcus M., another resident who asked to use his first name and last initial only, said the biggest difference is that he doesn’t have to fight for space or deal with the constant threat of confrontation. He would normally sleep in the shelter’s day room because he found the cavernous bunk room too noisy and chaotic. In the hotel, “I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Across the country, local governments are engaged in a debate about the most effective way to shelter people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Some have moved people to larger spaces, such as rec centers and convention halls, where they can sleep farther apart in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Other places, including Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco, have also begun moving homeless people into hotels, usually focusing on those who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable.

“What he needed was to be treated with dignity. That was it. And congregate homeless shelters do not do that.”

It’s not just about what’s safer. At the core of the debate is the question of cost ― hotels are generally more expensive than shelters ― and what it will mean when the pandemic is over.

Shelters have problems that extend beyond the spread of COVID-19. If it turns out that cities could have mobilized quickly to house people all along, it may be hard to justify putting people back in shelters once the immediate crisis is over.

For now, cities are beginning to move toward a hotel model for housing people. But many have struggled to do so efficiently. In late March, the city of San Francisco announced that it would open the George R. Moscone Convention Center as a shelter for 400 people, with mats placed six feet apart and divided by lines of tape ― an arrangement that opponents derided as an indoor concentration camp.

After a week of protests from homeless advocates and city supervisors, the city switched gears, downsizing plans for the shelter and committing to moving more unsheltered people into hotels to meet physical distancing directives. On April 10, the city publicly acknowledged a major COVID-19 outbreak at the Multi-Service Center-South Shelter, the largest shelter in the city.

San Francisco counted more than 17,000 people experiencing homelessness last year using a new method that more than doubled the 8,000 found in the most recent traditional one-night count. Mayor London Breed said in early April that the city would secure 7,000 hotel rooms as temporary shelter, and on April 15, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance directing Breed to increase that to 8,250 hotel rooms. Breed refused to sign the ordinance, saying it didn’t “acknowledge the challenges of operating these sites.”

As of late last week, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco said that fewer than 700 homeless people had moved into hotels. At a press conference last Wednesday, Breed said that “it’s difficult to project a timeline” for moving more people into hotels.

“We can’t fight a plague while exempting more than 10,000 people from any ability to stay inside and protect themselves,” said Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In Seattle, where dozens of COVID-19 cases have been linked to homeless shelters, Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted the idea of leasing or buying hotels for homeless residents. The city government is separate from that of King County, which contains Seattle and which has invested in hotel rooms like those at the Red Lion.

Durkan spokesperson Ernesto Apreza says the Federal Emergency Management Agency would only reimburse the city for hotel rooms for people who have been exposed to COVID-19, are over 65, or are otherwise vulnerable. “FEMA requires most sheltering support to be in a congregate setting,” Apreza said.

In fact, numerous states have already requested, and some have received, reimbursement for hotel rooms for the general homeless population, not just those who are “vulnerable.” In Connecticut, where FEMA already expanded reimbursement once to include domestic violence victims, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) made all shelter residents eligible for hotel rooms and is asking FEMA to expand its reimbursement qualifications again. New York, which is moving people into hotel rooms regardless of whether they’re “vulnerable” under the early federal guidelines, has already received FEMA reimbursement. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, states that take the initiative by expanding eligibility and requesting funds under the new criteria have a good chance of being reimbursed.

Read the rest of the story at HuffPost.

Navigation Team Removes Ballard Encampment After Petition Demands Sweep

Armed police officers far outnumbered the handful of unsheltered people who still lingered at an encampment at the Ballard Commons park this morning, two days after the city posted paper notices that the encampment, which has occupied the area since early March, had been deemed an “obstruction” and would be removed. The police stood around, chatting amongst themselves, until 9am, when it was time to roust people from their tents and get them to move along.

Officially, the city is no longer removing encampments unless they constitute an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living at a site. In reality, it would have been next to impossible to provide shelter, much less personalized shelter appropriate to each person’s health condition and situation, to the dozens of people who were living at the Commons and in front of the nearby Ballard Library before the notices went up.

Even with just 15 people remaining late this morning, according to the city’s official blog post about the sweep, there were only 12 beds available in enhanced shelters or tiny house villages. That means that if everyone had wanted a shelter bed, the options would quickly come down to a cot or mat on the floor at one of the large mass shelters that are still accepting clients—shared living spaces where infection can spread quickly, including COVID-19 spread. And the number of accessible beds was actually much lower than the city’s blog post lets on: Just 3 of the 12 beds were open to single men, who appeared to make up the vast majority of the people living at the Commons; the rest were for single women (seven) or couples (two).

 

The city did not say how many people actually accepted offers of shelter, only that there was shelter available for everyone who wanted it. Since April 22, according to HSD, the Navigation Team gave shelter referrals to 19 people. As I’ve reported, even in normal times when there is more turnover at shelters, a tiny fraction of referrals by the Navigation Team actually lead to shelter; most people who receive referrals never follow up, indicating either that the referral was unacceptable to them or that they didn’t have a way to get there.

Joseph, who had a broken foot, told me he had lived living at the Commons for several weeks after the winter-only emergency shelter where he was staying shut down. (To protect the privacy of vulnerable homeless people, and in acknowledgement of the fact that the people removed from the Commons today were experiencing trauma, I am not using their last names or running photos that include their faces.) He received a referral to the Navigation Center, and told me, “I have no idea what the Navigation Center is.” The center is located about six miles away in the International District—a trip that requires two buses and takes about an hour. According to an HSD spokesman, the Navigation Team did not offer transportation to the people who received shelter referrals this morning.

Joseph said he has had a voucher for housing for months, and has been working with Catholic Community Services to secure permanent supportive housing. He said this was the first time he has ever been contacted by the Navigation tTeam since moving to the Commons in April. “Look at all that stuff they’re throwing away,” he said, gesturing toward a pair of orange-vested team members who were tossing a tent and pile of items, including what looked like an old, wood-paneled stereo, into a waiting dump truck. “I’ve never seen anybody get their stuff back.”

The sweep came as a surprise to many advocates, as well as some within the Human Services Department itself. Just three days ago, HSD was touting its outreach to people living at the Commons, and there had been no public indication before this weekend that the agency considered the situation an “emergency” that required immediate removal. Examples of circumstances where an encampment would constitute an “emergency,” according to the city, include “living structures completely blocking the entire sidewalk, living structures prohibiting safe entry and exit from a building or use of a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

None of the tents at the Commons this weekend obstructed any part of the sidewalk, much less the entire thing, and there were no tents near the entrance to the library, the one public building that is open for a very limited purpose—to provide a restroom for people experiencing homelessness in the area, which until today primarily meant people living at the Commons. Nor did the city claim to have found any criminal activity taking place in the tents.

The only “public safety” or “health” justification HSD provided for the removal was a recent outbreak of hepatitis A, which, as of last month, included 11 people experiencing homelessness in Ballard. But new numbers released by King County Public Health today showed what the county called a “small reduction in cases,” with just six new cases among homeless people in Ballard. For comparison, there were five cases associated with a single restaurant, Señor Moose, that was shut down by the county for less than a week.

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It’s unclear where the decision to sweep the Commons originated, although several people at the site speculated that it came after a KOMO report featuring a woman brandishing a gun and saying she planned to take “safety issues” at the park into her own hands. Last week, homeowners in the area circulated a petition demanding the tents be removed and suggesting that homeowners would sue the city for “emotional distress” and loss of property value. A spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the decision to remove the encampments was made “by HSD and in consultation with City stakeholders, including SPD, Parks, SPU, and the Mayor’s Office” in response to “deteriorating” conditions at the site.

If anything, the encampment has been significantly cleaner and more orderly in recent weeks than it was during the early days of the pandemic, when tents spilled onto sidewalks near the library and onto the actual park grounds. On Saturday, the encampment was quiet, with dozens of tents arranged on the parking strips and only one tent in the park itself, under a tree near the corner of the one-block grounds.

By 8:30 this morning, the place was already almost empty. Social service workers who showed up to observe the sweep said this morning’s action undermined the many weeks of work they’d done to build relationships with people living at the encampment. And it makes them harder to reach.

“With a lot of my clients right here, it was easy for me to give them the resources they need,” said Joshua Perme, outreach manager for The Bridge Care Center near the park. “Now, with all these people scattered to the four winds, I’m going to have to go back out and find them.” This afternoon, Perme said, he planned to meet with a volunteer who sewed fabric masks for all the encampment residents. “NowI’m going to have to put them in a backpack and go out and find all of them. I’ll make it happen, but it makes my job much harder.”

Howard, a man who has been living in his truck near the Commons, said he didn’t see the point of moving people from place to place. “It’s during a pandemic. Where are they going to go?” he said. “They still have to have a place to lay their head and go to sleep. I can kind of understand from the community perspective—if some single gal wants to bring her little kid out here to the park— but it’s not like you can run and take a leap into one of those apartments” overlooking the park.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, sent a letter to Durkan’s office this morning calling the encampment removal “rash, disrespectful, and unlikely to assist people in need of help in a crisis.” As I did, Eisinger visited the site over the weekend—on Sunday—and said that it was “clean, and aside from the fact that the handwashing unit is not working, the facilities seem to be well-used. There were many parks users engaging in normal activities across the space and on the adjoining streets.”

The people who sign petitions to remove homeless people from parks and importune the mayor to earn their vote by “doing something” about the visibility of urban poverty may indeed feel that they accomplished something. But the thousands of people currently trying to survive on the streets of Seattle in the middle of a global pandemic would be right to wonder why, if the city has the resources to send dozens of cops to remove 15 nonviolent people from a public park, it can’t do something to get them into a place where they’re actually safe. While the city offers cots in congregate shelters to people who are already vulnerable, an entire downtown hotel sits almost empty, racking up a bill of $1 million a month. We have the money. It’s just a question of priorities.

Nonprofit Housing Providers Struggle to Pay Bills In COVID Crisis

This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared at Sightline.org, where you can read the entire story.

It’s the first of May. As another rent day arrives, tenants aren’t the only ones seeking relief from the financial fallout of COVID-19, which has led to widespread job loss in nearly every economic sector, and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

Cascadian affordable housing providers that receive funding through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which helps to fund about 90 percent of all new affordable housing in the US, have also been hit hard by the crisis. Nonprofit providers of subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income wage earners report unpaid rent rates of 20 percent or more, a shortfall that has left many struggling to balance their books.

“Our delinquency rate shot way up, and we are now accepting partial payment for rent and doing some payment plans,” said Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which serves communities throughout the Seattle metro area and in Olympia, Washington. “We’re working with tenants and doing partial payment plans for people who’ve recently become unemployed.”

In Oregon, about half the tenants in buildings owned by REACH Community Development earn income from wages. Anthony Petchel, REACH’s philanthropy and public relations director, says about 10 percent of their tenants had asked for rent forbearance as of late April, but he expected that number to go up as people continue to weather the economic collapse. “[The issue] is having the cash to manage the cash flow disruption” from missed rents, and “how long can all the organizations manage that,” Petchel says.

Daniel Delfino, the program and planning development director for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said that once the 60-day rent and mortgage freeze ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy ends, there are few protections for struggling tenants or for nonprofit housing owners with mortgages to pay.

Currently, nonprofit landlords are working out arrangements with tenants on a “case by case basis,” he said, but with more than 40,000 Alaskans unemployed, it’s unclear when or whether rent payments will get back to normal. “There are usually reserves that are put in place to handle four to six months of operating expenses and debt payments. Those aren’t set up to handle something like COVID-19, when the economic occupancy”—the percentage of people who pay their rent—”goes down from 93 percent to 40 percent.”

Enterprise Community Partners, a national low-income housing advocacy and funding group, estimates that a 10 percent income loss among renters could add up to $238 million per month in losses to groups like these that run LIHTC-funded buildings across the US. That’s based on an average loss of $792 in monthly rent from the three million tenants in LIHTC buildings that Enterprise estimates could miss rent payments if they don’t get assistance.

Susan Boyd, the executive director of Seattle nonprofit provider Bellwether Housing, said wage earners had a delinquency rate of about 21 percent as of mid-April, up from 2 to 3 percent in a typical month, as “about 30 percent of the people who were wage earners have lost all or a part of their income.” Likewise, Chris Persons, the director of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Housing, said April rents are falling about 22 percent short.

It’s easy to see why. With a patchy social safety net, hourly wage earners were already on the precipice of financial disaster before a nationwide economic shutdown led to mass unemployment.

A full-time worker making minimum wage in Oregon earns just over $23,000 a year; in Washington, that number is just over $28,000. According to the Urban Institute, the median income for US renters in low-income tax credit buildings was $17,470 before COVID, and about four in ten of these renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In King County, which includes Seattle, about 77,000 people making less than $40,000 a year had lost their jobs as of April 16; in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, about 38,000 low-income jobs had vanished. The pandemic puts the US housing crisis on steroids. Low-income renters often live paycheck to paycheck, and if they lose their jobs they simply can’t pay rent. The eviction moratoriums enacted in many jurisdictions throughout the US only grant a reprieve.

Even organizations whose revenues don’t rely primarily on renter incomes—groups like Plymouth Housing and the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, whose tenants pay their rents using federal vouchers and stable income sources like Social Security Insurance (SSI)—are struggling.

“We rely a lot on local dollars, most of which come from specific local taxes and fees like the [state] document recording fee for housing and homelessness, and of course those could go down if real estate transactions slow down, which seems likely,” DESC director Daniel Malone said. “And as local government taxation goes down, there certainly could be some squeeze on what they choose to fund and what they choose to cut.”

On April 21, Seattle’s City Budget Office released a worst-case revenue forecast that predicts a 2020 funding shortfall of up to $300 million, with some of the biggest revenue losses coming from the construction, retail, and food service sectors. In Portland, a smaller city, the shortfall could be as much as $100 million.

Read the entire story here.