Tag: COVID-19

Seattle’s Public Restroom Crisis: Many “Comfort Stations That Remain Open” Are Closed

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is big into numbers—numbers that show continual improvement, numbers that get bigger (or smaller, if the number is the number of homeless people counted on one night in January), numbers that show that the city acts on the basis of data, not assumptions. The numbers out of the city, under the Durkan administration, bring to mind a graph that only goes up. The mayor has tried to maintain this aura of constant progress even during the COVID epidemic, a time when thousands of homeless people in Seattle are still crammed into congregate shelters (many of them overcrowded) or living in tents in the forest, hoping not to be noticed.

Last week, for example, the mayor’s office claimed that there were 180 public restrooms in the city—a number the mayor’s office later amended to 133, then “more than 128 Seattle Parks comfort stations that remain open for hygiene needs.” Because every previous map produced by the city showed fewer than 100 public restrooms in city parks and community centers combined, I was skeptical about the new numbers and asked for a list. The mayor’s office provided a spreadsheet, and I started checking.

I started by eliminating the redundancies—parks with multiple restrooms, for example, that were previously counted as single restroom sites but that the mayor’s office is now counting two, three, or five times, such as Judkins, Woodland, and Seward Parks.  Removing these “extra” facilities and restoring the city’s previous standard lowers the total number to around 100.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that despite the city’s insistence that all of these restrooms “remain open” to the public, many of them are actually locked or sit, inaccessible, behind construction fencing. Of 27 of the locations on the city’s list (chosen by their geographic proximity rather than any characteristic common to the facilities), eight that I visited personally were closed. Those included restrooms in fairly large urban parks (Cal Anderson); restrooms serving play fields and playgrounds (Brighton Playfield; Madrona Playground); and smaller neighborhood parks (Dr. Blanche Lavizzo). Extrapolating to the rest of the city, it seems likely that far fewer than the 85 or so restrooms the city claimed prior to the COVID epidemic are actually open to the public.

The mayor engaged in a similar sleight of hand with homeless shelters last week, when she claimed that the city and county had opened 1,900 new “temporary housing” spots for “people experiencing homelessness.” I covered this magic trick already—in short, it involves counting existing shelter beds that have been relocated as “new”, counting beds in field hospitals and COVID isolation tents as “temporary housing,” and ignoring any shelter beds that have been lost as some smaller shelters close down—but I want to linger for a moment on why these faulty numbers matter.

It isn’t just that the mayor’s cheerful press releases—the graphs with lines that only go up—paint an inaccurately rosy picture of what’s happening to homeless and unstably housed people during the pandemic. It’s also that the numbers obscure the fact that the city has promised just 95 actual new shelter beds (none of which are “housing”), all of them announced back in early March.  In this way, the displacement of 85 people from the Harborview Hall shelter to make way for a 45-bed COVID recovery site becomes 130 new “temporary housing” units that are counted as part of the 1,900 total.The mayor’s graphs only go up, and her calculator only has a “plus” sign.

The mayor’s office doesn’t just play fast and loose with numbers. They also use words to mislead and obfuscate. Take, for example, the word “options”—as in, “1,900 New Temporary Housing Options,” from the headline of last week’s press release. Field hospitals, emergency isolation tents in suburban parking lots, and shelter beds relocated from downtown Seattle to the King County Airport are not “options.” They are desperate measures appropriate to an increasingly desperate time.

I get the political impulse to “look on the bright side,” create cutesy hashtags and encourage people to meaninglessly bang pots and pans to show their appreciation for the health care workers left vulnerable and unprotected by federal failures to provide protective equipment and tests  But no one would blame the mayor if she provided an honest assessment of the crisis in Seattle, shorn of platitudes and flowery appeals to the Seattle spirit. Some voters might even applaud her for it.

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

 

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

1. The city budget office has inked a deal with the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown to rent out all of the hotel’s 155 rooms for three months, at a cost of $3.9 million, to provide spaces for first responders who need to be in isolation or quarantine after exposure to the COVID-19 virus, The C Is for Crank has learned. The contract went into effect on March 23. The cost, which the city hopes will be partially reimbursed by the federal government, works out to $280 per room, per night.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More “De-Intensifying” Shelter Space, More Port-a-Potties, In Seattle

 

1. The city of Seattle and King County are  continuing to spread out shelter spaces so that people experiencing homelessness can sleep six feet apart—a solution that still leaves thousands of vulnerable people sharing close quarters in large, congregate settings, but is considered safer than the cheek-to-jowl sleeping arrangements in shelters under ordinary conditions.

The new “de-intensification” spaces will mostly be located in Seattle. In addition to 80 spaces at the the King County Airport and 100 spaces at the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center that were announced weeks ago, the new shelter locations include:

• 79 additional spots for DESC shelter residents at Exhibition Hall, for a total of 179;

• 146 spots at Fisher Pavilion, to be run by the Salvation Army;

• 50 spots at a women’s shelter run by Catholic Community Services, the YWCA, and WHEEL at the Garfield Community Center; and

• 50 spots at the Miller Park Community Center, to be operated by Compass Housing.

Two more “de-intensification” spaces, with room for 50 people each, will open in April at the Loyal Heights Community Center and the Southwest Teen Center. The city has not identified a provider for either of these spaces yet.

In addition, the Congregation for the Homeless in Bellevue is providing space for 80 people, and a new space for 24 people is supposed to open on Harbor Island in April.

Although the new spaces will create more physical distance between shelter residents’ cots, they are not new shelter spots; they’re being added specifically to redistribute people staying in existing shelters into larger spaces so that they can sleep further apart. So far, Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced 50 new shelter spaces in North Seattle and a total of 45 new spots (down from the previously announced 50) in tiny house villages.

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

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

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

2.The city announced plans more than a week ago to add portable toilets, and to get four of five hygiene trailers that were funded last November up and rolling, to serve the thousands of homeless people in Seattle whose access to indoor or private toilets has been diminished drastically because of COVID-related closures. The mayor’s office has declined to say when any of these new facilities will be up and running; last Friday, Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, said “We should have a more detailed update next week.”

However, an internal list, which appears to be preliminary, indicates that there will be more than 20 portable toilet locations around the city, with a total of about 36 new port-a-potties citywide.

Most of the portable toilet locations on the list are in public parks, which already have restrooms with sinks and running water. The JIC spokesman was unable to say whether this meant that parks restrooms, which have remained open so far, will be closing, or if the extra portable toilets would be in addition to the ones that are already there.

A spokesman for the city’s Joint Information Center said the detailed list (which includes addresses, the number of toilets at each location, the number of those toilets that will be ADA-compliant, and the number of handwashing stations) is “an early draft” and “not accurate,” and that “We hope to have something within the next day or two.”

Most of the portable toilet locations on the list are in public parks, which already have restrooms with sinks and running water. The JIC spokesman was unable to say whether this meant that parks restrooms, which have remained open so far, will be closing, or if the extra portable toilets would be in addition to the ones that are already there. “I am unable to confirm this. All of this is still being determined,” he said.

The list ranks portable toilets by priority, and includes locations in Ravenna Park, the Georgetown Playfield, the Arboretum, City Hall Park, Cal Anderson Park, the Rainier Playfield, Colman Park, the Lake City Community Center, and Genesee Park. It’s unclear whether the toilets, which will also include hand-washing facilities, will be staffed, and if so, whether they will be open all the time or just during business hours.

The list appears to show a significant gap in West Seattle.

Currently, people experiencing homelessness have access to restrooms at parks and community centers during the hours when those facilities are open. Other restroom sites listed on the city’s interactive restroom map, including all Seattle Public Library locations and some of the emergency day centers and urban rest stops, have closed down in response to the epidemic or are open only limited hours and to limited populations.

 

Selling Newspapers In a Ghost Town

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It’s the middle of the morning on Friday, March 20, and First Avenue in Pioneer Square is, unsurprisingly, a ghost town. The only people out on the streets are people who have to be there, or with nowhere else to be—a few construction guys in vests, a restaurant staffer, and several people wrapped in blankets, sitting on the sidewalk in front of shuttered storefronts.

But around the corner on South Main St., at the offices of street newspaper and homeless advocacy group Real Change, the scene is still bustling, as vendors file in to collect papers at the walkup counter, use the restroom (one of the few that’s still open downtown), and grab paper bowls of chili from a staffer.

Shelly Cohen, a vendor and Real Change board member who can often be found testifying at city hall against homeless encampment sweeps and human-service budget cuts, is preparing to head out with a new stack of the most recent edition. The cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down.”

Cohen, who sells papers at a PCC store in Bothell Canyon, says his sales are down, but contributions are up, so “my numbers per hour are pretty consistent” so far. “I’m very fortunate that way,” he says. Lately, he’s been displaying the paper upside down—“because the world is upside down right now”—and letting people grab their own papers, and make their own change, from a box underneath his chair.

Real Change director Tim Harris says the paper will keep printing, and the office will stay partially open, until or unless Gov. Jay Inslee issues an order to “shelter in place,” which would close down most nonessential businesses and make one-on-one sales impossible.  In the meantime, Real Change has set up a vendor relief fund, is allowing customers to donate to specific vendors via Venmo, and is preparing to move to online-only publication. The paper is also waiving the usual requirement that vendors buy a certain number of papers to retain the right to sell in a specific spot.

Lisa Sawyer, a vendor who usually sells papers at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street downtown, recently moved to a spot in Greenwood, but sales are way down there, too. She says she’d prefer to be indoors, “taking care of my health and everything, but this is the only way that I could get by. Especially my most of my income is going towards my room that I’m renting right now.” Sawyer has lived outdoors, off and on, for the last seven years; in February, she celebrated one year in her new home.

Like Cohen, Sawyers says some customers are giving more generously, sometimes without asking for a paper in return. “I had a customer that put money in a grocery cart and pushed it [toward me] and said, ‘I don’t need a paper, I’m giving you this to support you. I’ll put it in the cart because I’m practicing my social distance.’ I totally respect that.” Sawyers says she’s been wearing gloves and sanitizing her hands after every sale. “I’m being more cautious, too.”

David, a vendor who preferred to give his first name only, had only sold a handful of papers at his spot on the Ave in the University District on Thursday, and about a dozen the day before that—a huge drop from the 40 or 50 papers per day he usually sells. He says the U District has emptied out—“there’s nothing but homeless people and business owners looking across the street at other business owners.”

The biggest problem David sees right now is that with all the stores and libraries shut down, people have no place to use the restroom. “The University Bookstore is shut down. The library is shut down. Starbucks won’t let you use the restroom.” Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week that the Human Services Department and Seattle Public Utilities would soon deploy four mobile hygiene trailers that were funded last year and place portable toilets “at locations across Seattle.” As of Friday, according to mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, SPU was still “working on a detailed plan for locations across the city for each type of facility, budget, and staffing.”

Cohen says the city’s slow rollout of portable toilets (and shelters—so far, the city has promised just 50 new shelter spaces, plus 50 new spots in tiny house villages) shows that, as usual, people experiencing homelessness are simply not a priority for the city. “Where are our port-a-potties? Where are the trailers we fought for and won [in last year’s budget]? That’s what needs to be done, like, now. And it creates work for people [staffing the trailers]. What a concept.”

Evening Crank Part 1: Hunker Down Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Shelter In Place” Means Little If You’re Homeless

This piece originally appeared at HuffPost, where you can read it in its entirety.

Thousands of elderly and immunocompromised people are experiencing homelessness in Washington state, an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and the state isn’t giving them the option to self-isolate.

This puts them at serious risk for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. It’s also a dangerous double standard, advocates for homeless people say. At a time when officials are urging people to self-isolate to lower the likelihood of contracting the virus or spreading it, vulnerable people who are homeless are sharing sleeping quarters and restrooms.

“The city should be giving the kind of care to the homeless population that anyone would give their parents who are in their 80s,” said Rex Hohlbein, the founder of Facing Homelessness, a nonprofit that provides direct assistance to homeless Seattle residents. “Every person living outside is in the vulnerable category.”

Finding Spaces For Shelter

The state has taken some steps to protect its homeless population. The city of Seattle and King County are moving the shelter population into new, larger spaces so that they can sleep 6 feet apart. Residents who start showing symptoms are supposed to be moved into isolation units reserved for that purpose. But until then, they aren’t able to self-isolate, even if they’re vulnerable to the virus.

People experiencing homelessness who are older than 50 tend to have more underlying health problems than the general population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and are at higher risk for both chronic and contagious diseases.

One solution would be to offer more motel vouchers to people at high risk of infection. So far,  King County has funded about 60 motel vouchers for older and high-risk shelter residents, according to Sherry Hamilton, spokesperson for the King County Department of Human and Community Services. 

But that’s not nearly enough, advocates say. The latest one-night count of King County’s homeless population identified more than 5,200 people in shelters.

The city and county need to think long-term, said Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for the Seattle homeless advocacy group Real Change and a contributor to its newspaper.

“It would be better to get folks inside, where they could self-isolate, have access to hygiene services and follow public health guidelines in a way that maintains their dignity,” McCoy said.

Other people experiencing homelessness are sleeping outside, where they face other challenges as many public facilities have shut down, leaving them with no access to bathrooms or indoor spaces.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week that the city would deploy four hygiene trailers, along with handwashing stations and portable toilets, across the city. But with most other public restrooms shut down and just six 24-hour restrooms available citywide, it will take a lot more than a few portable toilets to meet the need.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.

No Shelter In Place Order, But More Admonishments for Grandma, From Gov. Inslee as COVID Crisis Continues

Gov. Jay Inslee declined once again on Friday to issue a legally binding “shelter-in-place” order requiring all Washingtonians to stay at home and avoid going to work or the store unless absolutely necessary, but said that if people continue to defy the existing direction to avoid gathering in groups, self-isolate when possible, and stay six feet away from other people, he will consider taking stronger action. Earlier this week, Inslee ordered all restaurants, bars, and other nonessential businesses to close except for takeout customers; banned gatherings of more than 50 people; and urged everyone over 60 or with compromised immune systems to stay inside and avoid contact with other people.

“I won’t be issuing any legally binding orders today, but that does not mean that we might not be back here soon to make further legally binding orders,” Inslee said. “And we understand that perhaps the force of law will not be necessary if Washingtonians act with the force of compassion, with the force of responsibility [and with] the sense that we are all in this together.”

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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.

Some groups—and some parts of the state—appear to be hearing that message louder than others. Using traffic on toll roads as an easily verifiable proxy for how many people are carrying on life as usual, Inslee noted that while traffic on SR 99 (through downtown Seattle), SR 520 (Seattle to Bellevue) and I-405 (the Eastside suburbs) were down, traffic on SR167 (Renton to Auburn), I-5 through Lakewood, on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and through Spokane had barely budged. “We remain concerned that some in our state are not taking the measures that are absolutely necessary to preserve health and life and limb in the state of Washington,” he said.

“We are all potential transmitters of this virus and we all, to some varying degree, are potential victims of this virus, and if anyone is living a normal life today, you are not doing what you need to do to save the lives of people in this state.”

The governor repeated his admonition that “grandma” and “your 18-year-old” need to be told that they can’t go out and get together with friends even if they want to. On Monday, Grandma was not supposed to go to “art galleries” or come in close contact with her grandkids; today, Inslee warned against “coffee klatches” and “sewing needle get-togethers.”

Friday’s announcement did not include any news about financial assistance for small businesses or renters, who will still be on the hook for rent as soon as the 30-day statewide eviction ban expires. (In Seattle, the eviction ban is for 60 days). Nor did Inslee mention any new social-distancing measures for homeless people living in shelters or people confined to mental hospitals and jails.

Inslee did make one brief mention of the state’s prison population. Among the supplies that are slowly making their way to Washington’s hospitals, Inslee said, will be 650,000 disposable gowns, “and we think we’re going to be able to make some of these gowns in our prison industry, actually,” Inslee said. His office did not immediately respond to a followup question about the use of prison labor—which has been controversial in other states—to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic.

 

Worker Benefits Expanded, Sweeps Suspended For Now, Navigation Team’s Future In Doubt

Ballard Business District, March 17, 2020

1. Governor Jay Inslee did not announce a statewide order to shelter in place on Wednesday afternoon, nor did he the bait when a reporter asked him whether he planned on doing so later this week. Instead, at a press conference in Olympia that was broadcast statewide, with reporters participating by teleconference, Inslee said he was issuing several new orders to ease the financial burdens the COVID-19 outbreak has placed on renters, small business owners, and workers statewide.

“My dad used to tell me, when you’re going through hell, keep going,” Inslee said, before announcing his latest statewide COVID financial relief package, which includes: 

• A statewide moratorium on evictions for residential tenants who are unable to pay their rent. Unlike a similar temporary eviction ban in Seattle, the statewide moratorium leaves some leeway for landlords to evict tenants for other reasons. “We just can’t have a big spike in homelessness … with this epidemic raging,” Inslee said. Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said that the order left room for landlords to evict tenants who were engaged in criminal activity or creating environmental hazards, for example.

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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 waiver of the usual one-week waiting period before people can receive unemployment benefits, retroactive to March 8, when Inslee expanded eligibility for unemployment to part-time workers. Inslee said today that he is waiting for the White House and Congress to declare a federal disaster in Washington State, making more employees, as well as some independent contractors, eligible for unemployment.

Employment Security Department commissioner Suzi LeVine said unemployment claims were up 150% last week, and claims for shared work arrangements (where people go to part time but also get unemployment) have spiked 500%. “There has been a tsunami of demand,” LeVine said.

• Small grants to small businesses that have been impacted by the epidemic, plus tax relief for businesses that are unable to pay their taxes on time, retroactive to February 29. This will include interest waivers and the suspension of tax liens and forced collections by seizing bank accounts.

• The extension of Emergency Family Assistance (cash assistance) eligibility to families without children.

“Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible [to COVID-19] than a lot of the general public.” — Steve, who lived in a trailer that was towed away by the Navigation Team last week

2. Yesterday, after declining to respond to questions from reporters about whether the Navigation Team planned to continue removing encampments and disposing of homeless people’s belongings during the pandemic, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post announcing the suspension of most sweeps, except in an “extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard.”

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said examples of an extreme circumstance would include any encampment that is “blocking the entire sidewalk, prohibits access to a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor says that both the Navigation Team and other city staffers authorized and trained to remove encampments on their own, such as community police officers and some parks employees, will abide by the moratorium. The blog post included a detailed itemization of the number of hygiene kits the city has distributed, the number of sites the team has visited, and the number of flyers about COVID they have handed out. But when it came to the number of encampments that have been removed since the beginning of March, when several people in the Seattle area had already died from the virus, the blog post said simply that they were “limited.”

Asked for a more specific number, the mayor’s office responded that the city removed just 15 encampments that were deemed “obstructions,” total, between March 1 and March 17.

3. I found out about one of those 15 removals on March 11, when Bailey Boyd, a North Seattle resident, took photos of its what was left after the Navigation Team towed away a trailer that was parked on the street near her home and posted them on Twitter. Boyd said and her roommate watched as the team tossed all of the items inside the trailer onto the street, where many of them remained until the couple who had been living there moved to a different location.

Source: Alliance for a HealthY Washington

“I went and got coffee in the morning, and when I came back, there was a squad car and another car there and the Navigation Team was going through all their stuff and throwing it on the ground,” Boyd said. “Then they brought a tow truck in and towed the trailer, and they just left all of their stuff on the side of the road.”

One of the two people who had been living in the trailer, whose first name is Steve, said the Navigation Team told him they could call a shelter for him and his girlfriend, who is disabled and uses a cane, and see if they had space. Steve says he told them not to bother. “I’m not going to a shelter. I’m with my girlfriend and I’m not going to split up from her,” he said. He also wants to avoid close contact with potentially infected people—something he doesn’t have to deal with living in a trailer. “Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible than a lot of the general public,” he said.

Another issue, for Steve and his girlfriend, is that they don’t want to lose all their personal items—something Steve said has happened to him repeatedly after the Navigation Team has made him move. According to the city, the Navigation Team places all personal items removed from encampments in storage for a minimum of 70 days. However, according to the “site journals” posted on the city’s encampment abatement page, which has not been updated since the end of January, the last time the Navigation Team stored any property at all was last October.

4. This year’s city budget will need to be cut dramatically to deal with the economic impact of the COVID epidemic. Last week, the head of the city budget office, Ben Noble, estimated that the budget could take a $100 million hit. One place council members may look for savings is the Navigation Team, which has been expanded every year since Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in 2017. The team, at 38 members, now costs the city $8.4 million a year.

District 2 council member Tammy Morales, who vowed during her campaign to “stop the sweeps,” told me this week that the council had already started looking at the team’s budget before the current crisis hit. “Even before this emergency, our office was working to stop the sweeps,” Morales said. Expect the council to take a critical lens to the program once the dust settles and it’s clear how much the city has to cut.

Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma Is Homeless

Governor Jay Inslee

At a telephone press conference this morning, Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a stern followup to his statewide order, issued Sunday night, closing restaurants, bars, and other gathering spaces and banning all gatherings of more than 50 people: “If you’re thinking about having a [gathering] with 49 people in the same room, think again.”

Directing his remarks at people over 60 or with an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to infection to infection, Inslee continued: “you are at substantial risk because of this virus. I want to make a very personal and gubernatorial request to you: You need to self-isolate, starting right now, and that means you need to change the way you operate your life.”

“If your grandma is going out… to an art gallery, no!” Inslee said, his voice rising. “You need to talk to her and say, ‘You’re not going to do that for a couple weeks at least.” King County Executive Constantine added that while it’s okay for people to take a “short drive,” they should make sure they don’t go too far from home so that they won’t have to use a public restroom.

But when asked about a different group of people vulnerable to COVID-19—the thousands of people experiencing homelessness who have health problems or are over 60—the advice from government officials was different. Instead of giving those elderly and vulnerable homeless people the ability to self-isolate, the county has adopted a policy of “de-intensification”—opening more shelter spaces to allow people to sleep six feet apart.

Asked why the city and county are continuing to gather the most vulnerable homeless people in large congregate shelters, Dow Constantine, the King County Executive, pointed to the opening of a new shelter at Boeing Field “that is specifically for older and more fragile adults, and that is going to offer us the option to shelter [those people] instead of sending them out onto the street.” The airport space is currently serving as a shelter for 80 men over 55 who had been staying in more crowded conditions.

Obviously, vulnerable people are safer when they can sleep six feet apart, rather than crowded into tighter quarters (or forced “out on the street,” a cruel alternative no one has actually suggested.) But the difference between the official policy for homeless and housed people couldn’t be more stark. If your grandma is housed, she shouldn’t go outside, play with her grandkids, or visit an art gallery where other visitors might be present. If she’s homeless, her best option is to sleep in a room (and share a restroom) with dozens of other people who are uniquely vulnerable to getting sick.

There is actually another option—one that doesn’t involve putting vulnerable homeless people “out onto the street.” The county could offer hotel vouchers to every single homeless person who is over 60 or has an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to infection. This would undoubtedly be expensive, but perhaps not as much as one might expect—after all, hotels in Seattle have emptied out as tourism has dried up, making deals easy to come by.

And beyond the cost to local governments, it’s worth considering the moral cost of deliberately creating a two-tiered system, one in which the recommended strategy for staying alive in a deadly pandemic depends on whether you, or your grandma, are homeless or housed.

King County Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton said the county is providing some additional vouchers; I’ll update this post when I find out more about how many vouchers will be offered and to whom.

Meanwhile, the city’s Navigation Team was reportedly continuing to remove homeless encampments over the weekend. According to the Alliance for a Healthy Washington, the team of police and Human Services Department staffers towed away a trailer occupied by three homeless people at N 137th Street and Midvale Ave. N on Saturday, leaving the group to sleep with their belongings under a tarp.

HSD has not yet responded to questions sent over the weekend about why the city is continuing to remove encampments during the outbreak, and Mayor Jenny Durkan did not answer the same question when Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone asked it during this morning’s press conference.

Library Closures Leave Homeless Patrons Stranded, Safe Consumption Sites See Support, and a MAGA Bill Reveals State GOP Priorities

University branch library, two hours before closing time on Friday.

1. Of all the drastic changes to daily life announced last week in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the closure of all Seattle Public Library branches may have the most profound impact on the city’s most vulnerable people—those without places to go to during the day, either because they’re completely unsheltered or because they stay in shelters that are only open at night. For people experiencing homelessness, libraries are a haven—warm places to be, but also places to charge phones, get online, and be in the company of other people.

The library’s 27 branches are also places where people without homes or offices can wash their hands and use the restroom, making them a critical resource during daytime hours in a city where publicly accessible restrooms are few and (literally) far between. Without access to libraries, more people will be forced to use public spaces as makeshift restrooms. The fact that people urinate and defecate in public has an easy explanation and a simple solution: When restrooms are available, people use them.

The city has long been aware of this. In 2015, when then-mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness, the civil proclamation he signed specifically identified the lack of access to restrooms and hand washing facilities as a problem that needed to be addressed. Four years later, the city auditor issued a scathing report slamming the city for failing to address the problem; among other findings, the report noted that UN standards for refugee camps would require about 224 toilets that are accessible 24 hours a day; instead, the city has just six 24/7 restrooms and about 100 locations that provide restroom access during limited hours. 

When I’ve asked about the lack of public restrooms in the past, the Human Services Department has pointed me to this interactive map, which shows every location in the city where theoretically public restrooms are located. But many of these sites are open only during limited hours (some only a few hours a week), or are only accessible to specific populations, such as women or youth. The city will keep community center and parks restrooms open during daytime hours for the time being, but those are of limited utility to people who aren’t already in those parks and near those community centers. Additionally, one great thing about a library is that it’s a place where people can use the restrooms and spend time without having their presence questioned. Without libraries, people lose access to both those things.

Obviously, I’m not saying the libraries should have stayed open during the pandemic; they had to close, because they bring people into close proximity and because library materials are ideal vectors for the virus to spread. What I am saying is that if the city had done more a long time ago to meet people’s immediate needs—like opening more public restrooms instead of spending resources creating defensive interactive maps that suggest no problem exists—this aspect of the crisis might have been averted.

2. On Saturday, King County identified three new locations for people at high risk for coronavirus complications and for those who need to be isolated or quarantined because they have contracted the novel coronavirus:

• The Arrivals Hall at the King County International Airport is now being used as a shelter for the men (most of them over 55) who usually stay at the St. Martin De Porres shelter in Seattle.

• A county-owned parking lot at Eastgate in Bellevue, where “a fully self-contained tent, with flooring and heat, has been purchased for use as an isolation and recovery location,” according to the county. The tent will open next week.

• A Holiday Inn in Issaquah, which the county will lease and use either to provide medical support to vulnerable populations or isolate people “who do not require significant social support services.” Yesterday, after a homeless man who was being isolated at a county-owned motel left the facility against medical advice, the county changed its policy so that only people who do not need social services will stay at hotels.

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3. A recent poll of Seattle voters found that 61 percent support the idea of supervised drug consumption sites—a strong margin for an idea that has been continually sidelined despite a unanimous endorsement from the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Task Force in 2016. Supervised consumption sites, which are common in many European countries, offer safe spaces for drug users to use under medical supervision. The goal of these sites is to prevent deaths from overdose, provide basic services such as wound care; and link people with supportive services, including recovery support and treatment for those who are interested in quitting or reducing their use.

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