Tag: COVID-19

City Considered, and Rejected, “Voluntary Relocation” Policy for Homeless Encampments

An encampment on South King Street, just prior to removal. Within days, tents had popped up a block away on South Jackson Street.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group of Human Services Department staffers and Seattle police officers that removes homeless encampments from parks and other public spaces, considered formally adopting a new policy under which homeless people removed from one location would be told to “voluntarily relocate” to another spot, either “self-selected” or identified by the city, internal memos and emails obtained through a records request reveal.

The discussions took place in April, as HSD, the parks department, and the mayor’s office discussed how to deal with an encampment near the Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that is perennially full.

In an April 16 memo to deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, HSD director Jason Johnson laid out a plan in which the Navigation Team would “encourage and support individuals residing on the [Navigation Center] stairs to accept shelter resources or to voluntarily relocate to a wide stretch of sidewalk at S Dearborn St & 10th Ave S.”

Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The site was chosen, according to the memo, because it was wide enough to allow some pedestrian access, close to a proposed hygiene station, and accessible for emergency and sanitation workers. (Other emails indicate that the Navigation Team also considered identifying “a large parking lot that people can be directed to camp in” after being removed from around the Navigation center). In an email to Navigation Team members and HSD staffers expanding on the memo, Navigation Team director Tara Beck indicated that people living in encampments slated for removal would be told to “self-select areas to relocate to”—a more politic way of saying, “Move along.”

Before the pandemic, the Navigation Team removed dozens of encampments every month, avoiding a legal requirement that they provide advance notice and offer shelter and services to every encampment resident by designating most encampments as “obstructions,” which are exempt from those requirements.

Since mid-March, in recognition of the fact that moving people from place to place could accelerate the spread of the virus, the team has only conducted a handful of large-scale encampment removals. After each such operation, the city has said that every unsheltered person remaining at a location on the day of a swee received a legitimate offer of shelter that was accessible and appropriate for their specific circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s an easily observable fact that encampments tend to come back after they’re removed, a sign that people either aren’t actually showing up in shelter or aren’t staying there.

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The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets within the current shelter system. Moreover, by conceding that the best they are able to offer many homeless people is a different camping spot, the city would have also had to acknowledge that it would rather have people living in tents on sidewalks during the COVID-19 pandemic than offer them space in vacant motel rooms, as many other cities across the country—but not Seattle—have done.

Ultimately, the city decided not to adopt the new “voluntary relocation” policy. According to HSD spokesman Will Lemke, in the case of the Navigation Center encampment, HSD “opted to offer shelter and service rather than suggest that people move nearby.” But the discussions that took place back then shine a light on the city’s early thinking about how to deal with encampments at a time when they are temporarily unable to simply declare encampments “obstructions” and remove them.

The tension over how to deal with the 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle—a number that could soon swell as unemployment benefits dry up and eviction moratoriums end—isn’t going to let up. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive referral rights to most of the 95 new shelter and tiny house village beds that opened in response to the pandemic. If encampment removals start up again in earnest, those 95 beds won’t just be inadequate—they’ll be overrun.

As the pandemic drags on into its seventh month, the city is actually preparing to close shelters at community centers that were originally opened as “redistribution” sites for existing shelters where conditions were too crowded. Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets

One place they won’t be moving is to the enormous “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Sixkiller said was coming back in April. The tent was supposed to provide shelter for up to 250 clients of the Salvation Army, which is currently operating shelters out of City Hall and in Seattle Center.

Documents obtained through a second records request show the enormous cost and size of the tent, which would have been provided by Volo Events, “a leading producer of live events and experiential marketing agency” and cost nearly $1 million—just for the tent—for two months. The 30,000-square-foot tent was going to be set up inside another structure—most likely Memorial Stadium.

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.

“We Just Can’t Do It.” Seattle Debates Moving Homeless People From Hotels Back to Mass Shelter

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, is insistent: The 200 or so men and women living in a Red Lion hotel in Renton since the COVID-19 pandemic began can’t go back to DESC’s main building downtown—not now, not ever.

“We definitely can’t just take all of those people and move them back to the main shelter at the end of August,” when the contract for the Red Lion ends, he says. “We just can’t do it.” DESC’s congregate shelters, which provide basic shelter in bunk beds for 383 people, serve some of the most medically vulnerable men and women in the city, and are “not in keeping with public health guidelines for [bed] spacing” during the pandemic, Malone says.

DESC hopes to purchase three motels, each with about 130 rooms, to permanently shelter those 383 people, and to put the Morrison Hotel—the historic Pioneer Square building that houses the organization’s main shelter, along with 190 units of permanent supportive housing—to other uses. If funding for this plan doesn’t come through, Plan B is returning about half of those people to reconfigured shelters at higher cost per bed than motels.

“We definitely can’t just take all of those people and move them back to the main shelter at the end of August. We just can’t do it.” —Daniel Malone, Downtown Emergency Service Center

“On a per-person basis, you’d end up spending a lot more to reuse the older facilities, because you’d have fewer people in them— and then, of course, you’d have just far fewer beds,” Malone says.

Several other shelter providers have moved people into hotels in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Salvation Army and Catholic Community Services. These groups will face a similar debate when funds for hotel rooms start running out.

COVID-19 outbreaks within the homeless population have been most common in mass shelters where people sleep a few feet apart and share common areas, restrooms, and other facilities. According to the King County Public Health department, which monitors an incomplete list of about 50 shelters around the county, most reported cases of COVID-19 among the county’s homeless population have occurred in congregate shelters, bolstering the argument for individual rooms. And with the World Health Organization reporting that COVID-19 can spread through the air in indoor settings, the argument for eliminating mass shelters, like the ones the city of Seattle has opened in community centers and public buildings to “de-intensify” existing shelters, is compelling.

City council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said last week that she was “frustrated” that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s request for federal funding for COVID-19 response did not include funding for additional beds in non-congregate settings, such as hotel rooms or dorms. Instead, the requests so far would pay for existing shelter beds that were funded through the original 2020 budget, which is facing significant midyear cuts.

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“I didn’t think we could be any more clear, from the council’s perspective, that non-congregate settings are a priority for us,” Mosqueda told city budget director Ben Noble during a briefing last week. “About three weeks, ago I said from the conversations that we were having with people who are providing direct services to the houseless, they are very fearful that they are just weeks from where the long-term care facilities were in the very beginning.

“What other types of funding are we looking into to create non-congregate shelters?” she asked “I’m still frustrated that we don’t have that answer from [the Human Services Department.”

Durkan has resisted proposals to fund non-congregate shelter options like hotels during the pandemic, despite ample evidence that not only do separate spaces prevent COVID-19 from spreading but have tremendous physical and psychological benefits to people accustomed to fighting over space, food, and showers in overcrowded congregate settings. (The Red Lion, for which the city provides some funding, has not had a single case of COVID-19).

“If the question is what happens in two or three months, more people will be alive [because] fewer people will have contracted COVID. Quite literally, that is how we will save lives.”—City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

“I think we need to be conscious of the sustainability of whatever system we set up,” Noble said last week. “The COVID pandemic isn’t going to disappear by any means… and I think there are difficult decisions to be made about how well we can manage some level of congregate shelter … versus moving folks singularly into non-congregate settings, and part of that is making sure we have sufficient and robust testing in these settings.”

“If the question is what happens in two or three months, more people will be alive [because] fewer people will have contracted COVID,” Mosqueda shot back. “Quite literally, that is how we will save lives.”

Malone, from DESC, says that for the hundreds of people who are supposed to leave their hotel rooms at the end of August, the future remains “very uncertain.” He’s hopeful that the county, which secured the hotel for DESC in the first place, will come through with some capital and operating funding for their longer-term proposal, and has shown the city some preliminary figures for what it would cost to operate both the motels and mass shelters at half their previous capacity.

“There are lots of people from different quarters who are enthusiastic about this idea, and that makes me think we would have a shot at pulling the resources together,” Malone says. “I just don’t feel the door is shut on this.”

“Pursuing this strategy of going to individual rooms is the way to go,” he continues, “and even if we got to the end of this epidemic in the future, that would still be a better way to do it.”

Lawyers, Car Dealerships, Burger Joints, Newspapers, and Strip Clubs: Which Seattle Companies Got Federal Loans

COVID-19 Relief Series, Part 2: Paycheck Protection Program ...

 

The Small Business Administration has published a list of the companies that received Paycheck Protection Act loans of more than $150,000, including thousands of Seattle-based for-profit companies, nonprofits, and religious institutions. (The low-interest loans convert into grants if they are used primarily to retain staff who might otherwise be laid off). The local list, which I’ve compiled into a Google spreadsheet, includes a wide range of companies, from large law firms to newspapers to Catholic schools to nonprofits.

The Small Business Administration, which administered the loans, lists loans as ranges, so I have described each loan as being “up to” the higher end of the range. You can download the full spreadsheets of loans over and under $150,000 on the SBA website; note that the list of loans under $150,000 does not contain business names or detailed business categories.

I took a look at the list of Seattle companies and put together a highly unscientific, non-comprehensive guide to highlights, lowlights, and oddities.

• As the New York Times and others have pointed out, large law firms, lobbyists, and car dealerships were among the biggest “small-business” loan recipients nationwide, and Seattle was no exception. Law firms receiving big payouts in Seattle include Foster Garvey (formerly Foster Pepper), which received as much as $10 million; Schroeter, Goldmark, & Bender (up to $2 million) and Stokes Lawrence (up to $2 million). Local mega-consulting form Strategies 360 received up to $5 million. And Bill Pierre Ford (up to $2 million), Carter Motors, and Freeway Motors (up to $5 million each) were just three of the 20 Seattle car dealerships that received federal loans, a number that does not include the much higher number of dealerships just outside city limits.

The owners of the McDonald’s at Third and Pine, a corner that has seen many shootings over the years (most recently in February, when a mass shooting killed one and injured seven), also received a loan of up to $5 million.

• Several local media companies received PPP loans, including the Seattle Times (which reported earlier this month that it had received nearly $10 million), the Stranger (which has not disclosed its loan of up to $2 million, and continues to solicit small donations from readers, saying they’ve lost more than 90 percent of their revenue), the Daily Journal of Commerce (which received up to $1 million) and Sagacity Media, which owns Seattle Met Magazine and received up to $2 million. Cascade Public Media, the umbrella nonprofit for KTCS 9 and Crosscut, also received up to $2 million.

• For reasons that are unclear, Red Mill Burgers, which is owned by two white siblings, listed itself as a Black-owned business, according to the SBA. (The racial designation is optional, and does not confer any particular advantage.) Red Mill was in the news several years ago after owner John Shepherd got in trouble for making sexist and transphobic comments and sharing transphobic cartoons. Specifically, he “stepped down” from his “role” at the company—without actually relinquishing control—after calling female city council members “bitches” for voting against a sports arena and posting transphobic memes on Facebook. Shepherd remains an active commenter on the anti-homeless Safe Seattle Facebook page. Red Mill received between $100,000 and $350,000.

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• Restaurants, which (along with hotels) were hard-hit by stay-at-home orders, ranked high among recipients of large and mid-range loans. Some notable beneficiaries include Duke’s Chowder House (up to $5 million); the Daily Dozen Doughnuts stand in Pike Place Market (up to $5 million); Matador, with branches in West Seattle and Ballard (up to $5 million); Salty’s, a seafood restaurant on Alki Beach (up to $5 million); two franchise branches of Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese restaurant chain (up to $2 million); Renee Erickson, who owns nearly a dozen local sea creature-themed restaurants (up to $5 million); and the ultra-spendy Queen Anne destination restaurant Canlis (up to $2 million); and Dick’s Drive-Ins (up to $5 million).

Various business entities associated with restaurateur Tom Douglas, who shuttered all of his restaurants and laid off hundreds of employees in early March, will collectively receive loans of up to $4.35 million. The restaurants include some that are still open, such as the Palace Kitchen, Dahlia Lounge, and Serious Pie, as well as two that Douglas has closed permanently, Brave Horse Tavern and Cuoco. According to the SBA database, Douglas’ claimed that the federal loan of up to $1 million would allow Terry Avenue Restaurants, the corporate name for the two shuttered restaurants, to retain 92 jobs.

The owners of the McDonald’s at Third and Pine, a corner that has seen many shootings over the years (most recently in February, when a mass shooting killed one and injured seven), also received a loan of up to $5 million.

Rounding out the list of local burger chains, Kidd Valley and Burgermaster each received loans of up to $1 million.

Five corporations associated with Deja Vu strip clubs, not all of them incorporated in Washington State, showed up on the list and received a total of up to$5,350,000.

Some of the restaurateurs who will benefit from federal largesse have been in the news previously for stiffing workers or expressing anti-tax or anti-government views. Douglas, who just announced he will permanently close two of his restaurants near the Amazon campus, was among the most vocal restaurant-industry opponents of the “head tax” last year, and had to pay out a $2.4 million settlement for underpaying his employees last year. Dick’s Drive-Ins also came out against the tax, and its executive vice president, speaking on behalf of the company, suggested that charitable giving by individuals should replace government support for homeless services.

• A large number religious institutions (which are not taxed) received significant loans, among them the Corporation of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle (up to $5 million), the Diocese of Olympia (up to $1 million), St. Anne’s Church on Queen Anne (up to $1 million), and about three dozen other churches or religious organizations. Private schools, many of them run by religious denominations, also received dozens of loans; Holy Names Academy (up to $2 million), St. Joseph School (up to  $2 million), and O’Dea High School, for example, received loans, as did private schools like Morningside Academy (up to $350,000) and charter schools like Summit Public Schools and Villa Academy (up to $2 million each).

The libertarian, anti-government Washington Policy Center—which rails against expansion of government programs to help vulnerable people and advocates for “free-market solutions” over government “handouts”—accepted a federal handout of up to $1 million.

• Local nonprofits that help people experiencing homelessness and food or housing insecurity also received loans to continue doing their work at a time when direct assistance has been especially critical. On the long list are Food Lifeline (up to $2 million), Solid Ground (up to $5 million), the Chief Seattle Club (up to $350,000), the Lighthouse for the Blind (up to $10 million), Asian Counseling and Referral Service (up to $5 million) and El Centro de la Raza (up to $2 million).

• Five corporations associated with Deja Vu strip clubs, not all of them incorporated in Washington State, showed up on the list and received a total of up to $5,350,000. According to the SBA, the five Seattle-based entities employ nearly 400 people.

One, Bijou-Century LLC, is registered in Nevada and owns a strip club in San Francisco that has been the source of several high-profile legal disputes, including a lawsuit against the software company Oracle over an unpaid five-figure tab. Another, S A W Entertainment Ltd., is associated with the Hustler and Condor strip clubs (both Deja Vu-affiliated) in San Francisco. The listed location for both entities is at 1510 1st Ave., the location of Fantasy Unlimited/Deja Vu Showgirls, but neither company is registered in Washington. And two more Deja Vu affiliates—BT California, which runs the Penthouse Club in San Francisco, and Deja Vu San Francisco LLC—are both listed at an address on Eastlake Ave. E. that is not the site of any strip club.

Only Seattle Amusement Co., also located at 1510 First Ave., is an actual Washington State corporation—it’s owned, along with the rest of the building that houses the Showbox nightclub, by local strip club magnate Roger Forbes, who started the Deja Vu company with Larry Flynt in 1985. The byzantine accounting (and the sleuthing required to find out where all these “Seattle” LLCs are registered) speaks to the difficulty of tracking where all the loans are going, even with the benefit of spreadsheets and the Internet. For what it’s worth,

Finally, the libertarian, anti-government Washington Policy Center—which rails against expansion of government programs to help vulnerable people and advocates for “free-market solutions” over government “handouts”—accepted a federal handout of up to $1 million.

Kent Motel Meant for Isolation and Quarantine Sits Empty As Homeless Numbers Rise

As King County released the latest one-night count of people experiencing homelessness, which showed a significant increase in showing a significant increase in unsheltered homelessness across the county, a motel in Kent that could temporarily shelter dozens of people sits empty. The 84-room formre Econolodge, which the county purchased in March to serve as an isolation and quarantine site for people with confirmed or potential COVID diagnoses who lack a safe place to isolate, is one of four such sites; just two, in Issaquah and North Seattle, are currently operating.

At a briefing Wednesday, King County Department of Health and Community Services director Leo Flor said the county was keeping the motel “warm”—that is, empty and ready to accept new guests—in order to quickly accommodate new isolation and quarantine patients if COVID numbers rise dramatically or in case of a maintenance failure at one of the other sites. “I do not think that we are through with this COVID-19 emergency,” Flor said. “We certainly know in the fall that we need to be ready to provide larger numbers of isolation and quarantine rooms if they become necessary.”

In outlining the post-COVID future of shelter, Flor acknowledged that all the available evidence shows that moving from a shelter to a hotel room can lead to enormous improvements in people’s mental and physical well-being. When DESC shut down its crowded, chaotic downtown shelter and moved those clients, along with others, to a vacant Red Lion hotel in Renton, clients saw dramatic improvements in behavioral health conditions, a surprising outcome I wrote about in May. The privacy and dignity of a private room “in and of itself [causes] a transformation,” Flor said. “Sleeping in a bed, in a place where you feel safe… really seems to be good for people’s health. And the lack of those things seems to be bad for people’s health.”

Flor acknowledged, in a roundabout way, the fact that even a temporary homeless shelter would run into a buzz saw of opposition from local officials. The city, just south of Seattle, has consistently fought proposals for shelters and homeless services; outreach workers in the area say that when police roust unsheltered people and tell them to move along, they sometimes hand out flyers directing people to shelters in Seattle.

“The facility was put into action under a public health rationale, and cities have a role in permitting and in regulating the types of facilities that are within their boundaries, particularly when we are not in emergency situations,” Flor said. “There’s a number of regulatory regimes that are governing what we might be able to do with particular facilities, and then [we have to consider] the importance of strong partnerships with cities.” The county is in the process of developing a framework for a new regional homelessness authority in which suburban cities like Kent will have outsize influence over policy while contributing nothing financially to the new agency.

After a patient left the Kent isolation and quarantine facility without medical authorization and boarded a Metro bus, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said her “nightmare” had come true. (The patient’s test results were negative.) Ralph opposed locating the isolation/quarantine site from the moment it was announced, telling the Seattle Times, saying that COVID-19 might be used as “a pretext for the siting of a longer term homelessness or quarantine facility in Kent.”  The city tried, and failed, to get a restraining order preventing the county from using the motel as an isolation site.

The county’s latest point-in-time count, conducted in January but just released yesterday, found 11,751 people experiencing homelessness in King County. The report noted that this probably represents an undercount of unsheltered people because it was unusually rainy on the night of the county, so it was harder to count people sleeping in vehicles or find those who had taken refuge in abandoned buildings. The number of unsheltered people counted in Southwest King County, which includes Kent, was 1,115—a 3 percent increase over last year’s count.

City-Funded Downtown Hotel Housed 12 People a Night While Thousands Slept in Tents and Crowded Shelters

In his budget presentation last week, Seattle budget director Ben Noble include a slide indicating that the city planned to spend (and seek reimbursement for) more than $3 million on hotel rooms for “essential workers,” plus $325,000 for rooms for “first responders,” during the COVID crisis. The line items represent the maximum cost to rent out the entire downtown Executive Pacific Hotel for three months.

As I’ve reported, the likely total cost is somewhat lower, because for three months, the hotel has been sitting virtually empty.

How empty? Well, about a month ago, the city was concerned enough about the fact that almost no first responders were staying in the rooms that they expanded the criteria for hotel stays to include “essential workers,” including health care workers and a handful of homeless service providers. Since then, the numbers have inched up—slightly. According to the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, during the three-month duration of the contract, the hotel logged 1,156 bed nights, which each represent a person occupying a room for one night. Put another way, the hotel had, on average, 12 guests per night—and 143 empty rooms.

The city could not, of course, have anticipated that the need for COVID first responders would flatten so quickly along with the curve of infections, or that so few firefighters and police would want or need to self-isolate in a downtown hotel. But the city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

Mayor Durkan, when pressed, has said that the city is paying for hotels—for example, they’re contributing to the cost of the Red Lion in Renton that the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been occupying for months. But she has doggedly resisted calls to move people from ad hoc mass shelters the city set up to respond to COVID—most of them bare-bones facilities with cots set up six feet apart—into hotels inside the city. And she even put roadblocks in front of a program that would move people from encampments to motel rooms that, like the Executive Pacific, are already paid for and sitting vacant.

The city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

I sent the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department a list of questions about the city’s long-term plans for people staying in “redistribution” shelters (temporary spaces in city-owned buildings where people can sleep six feet apart). I included a list of locations that I was especially curious about—high-volume shelters that have been moved to places like Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, and the city’s community centers.

The city responded by saying, essentially, that they still haven’t determined exactly when people will be moved from the current temporary shelters, or to where. “These conversations… are underway,” HSD spokesman Will Lemke said. Lemke added that HSD is “working with Public Health, DCHS, and agency partners to develop a strategy for addressing both short and long-adjustments needed to operate the homeless response system in light of COVID-19.”

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If you think of the current shelter system as fundamentally broken, and COVID as not just a crisis to respond to but an opportunity to rethink shelter (and other systems) as a whole, then it’s disheartening that the city is still thinking in terms of “adjustments” to respond to COVID rather than thinking of the pandemic as a chance to make wholesale changes. The Red Lion offers a promising example. After it opened, residents who were used to staying in DESC’s overcrowded, dirty, chaotic downtown shelter exhibited fewer behavioral problems, got in fewer fights, and used fewer substances—simply because they had privacy, a shower they didn’t have to fight for, and some space to relax.

DESC director Daniel Malone has said he hopes the agency never has to reopen the downtown shelter, a plan that will require the agency to purchase motels for long-term use. But Lemke’s comments (which represent the perspective of the mayor’s office), and the city’s history of pouring money into a shelter system that people experiencing homelessness consider alienating, traumatizing, and inhumane, suggest that other shelters may go back largely to business as usual unless the city council, or a groundswell of political opposition to warehouse-style shelters, intervenes to push the city in a different direction..

The total cost to rent the Executive Pacific Hotel, FAS spokeswoman Melissa Mixon says, will likely be closer to $2 million rather than $3.4 million, since the hotel gave the city a break on taxes and the city did not end up paying for many meals. Empty rooms don’t eat. What’s impossible to know is how much money the city might have saved in the long run by turning those empty rooms into shelter for people experiencing homelessness and working intensely to ensure that they had a place to stay when they left. Those aren’t the kind of calculations that Seattle, as a city, is good at making.

Durkan’s Proposed $20 Million Cut to Police Is Just $4 Million More Than Initially Planned

The overall budget picture, via City Budget Office.

After weeks of soaring, budget-speech-style rhetoric about “reimagining the police” and “working with community,” Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed midyear police budget cut of $20 million, or just 5 percent of the department’s $400 million budget, was underwhelming. Moreover, according to sources familiar with Durkan’s initial budget balancing package, the proposed cut is only one percentage point (or $4 million) higher than the one Mayor Durkan proposed internally three weeks ago, before protests against police violence upended the city’s business-as-usual approach to public safety. That $4 million can be accounted for by Durkan’s proposal to delay the construction of a second North Precinct for the department.

Despite demands from activists against police violence to start cutting SPD right away, the 5 percent cut will not even reduce the size of the police force. As a presentation on the budget cuts makes clear, SPD is on track to hire and train enough new officers to make up for the expected rate of attrition through the end of the year. The presentation emphasizes that SPD is taking the biggest budget hit, in dollars, of any department; it does not point out the fact that this is because SPD is by far the largest department in the city.

SPD spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

None of the changes proposed for SPD’s budget in 2020 represent a realignment of priorities; rather, they nibble around the edges by cutting things like new IT investments and cars.

SPD’s midyear budget adjustment also does not include any changes to the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and Human Services Department employees who do outreach and remove encampments around the city. Currently, the SPD budget includes $2.4 million for the Navigation Team, which pays for one lieutenant, two sergeants, and nine officers. School resource officers—police who provide security at schools, a role that is also extremely controversial—have been repurposed to go out with the Navigation Team while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The mayor’s budget announcement included a commitment from SPD to come up with proposals to cut its own budget by 30, 40, and 50 percent for 2021, and a commitment from the city to “engage community to provide substantive input on what 2021 SPD budget choices should be made.”

It’s standard for the city to ask departments to come up with potential cuts themselves, but the case of SPD is different because protesters are clamoring for its budget to be cut in half (to begin with) and for the entire concept of public safety to be reimagined in a way that does not center police. The Human Services Department, for example, came up with 2020 cuts that include not filling vacancies and reducing or eliminating travel and trainings—but, unlike the ongoing outcry over police funding, no one is clamoring for fewer human or social services, so the process of asking HSD to propose its own cuts is less politically fraught.

The police department spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

The mayor’s proposed 2020 budget balancing package would also draw on funds from several voter-approved levies to pay for normal city operations. For example, $10 million will be shifted this year from the Move Seattle Levy, which was supposed to fund new transportation capital projects, toward the day-to-day operations of the Seattle Department of Transportation. The library levy, which was supposed to fund increased services, will now pay for basic operations—keeping the lights on at branches that might otherwise see reduced hours or closures.

The council will be discussing the mayor’s proposed budget cuts this afternoon. Most members of the council support passing a progressive tax to reduce the impact of next year’s budget shortfall. A payroll tax on large employers with high-paid workers, proposed by council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, has five co-sponsors (a majority), but council member Kshama Sawant has threatened to put her own competing employee hours tax on a citywide ballot if Mosqueda’s proposal goes through in its current form. Durkan has not endorsed Mosqueda’s package and has never supported any tax proposal at the city level.

Budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the budget cuts the city expects to make in 2021 (again, in the absence of any progressive revenue package) will amount to about 10 percent of the city’s overall budget—an “unprecedented” amount that even dwarfs the cuts the city made under former mayor Mike McGinn during the Great Recession.

Program to Move Unsheltered People Into Hotels Stymied Again as Police Turn Attention to Protests

Police face off against protesters during Weller Street encampment removal last month.

Despite significant progress late last month, the Public Defender Association has been stymied once again in its efforts to move homeless Seattle residents with criminal justice involvement into empty hotel rooms it is currently renting for this purpose—this time, because the Seattle Police Department stopped actively participating in the PDA’s Co-LEAD program, less than one week after the city gave the go-ahead for the PDA to start enrolling clients.

Co-LEAD is an offshoot of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, an arrest-diversion program run by the PDA in partnership with Seattle police. Created specifically for the COVID crisis, Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, gift cards, and services to clients who would otherwise be living on the street and committing crimes of survival, such as shoplifting and selling drugs.

The PDA had hoped to expand the program, which has been accepting clients from Burien and the King County Jail for months, to Seattle, starting with a large encampment on Second Ave. Ext. S. in Pioneer Square. Last month, PDA deputy director Jesse Benet told me the group had identified about 15 people living in the encampment who qualified for the program, and was just waiting for final approval from the city to enroll these new clients and move them off the street.

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Instead, the city has given its approval to enroll between ten and 15 completely different people, identified long before the COVID crisis, whose whereabouts are currently unknown—a group of so-called “prolific offenders” who, according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, “voluntarily admitted their involvement in committing low-level crimes” and were deemed eligible for the program.

The issue with enrolling new clients, according to the mayor’s office, is that SPD has “ceased regular operations since May 30,” when protests against police violence began in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, so no one has been available to approve clients identified since the pandemic started.

The mayor’s office says the police department should be able to “restart the referral process in the coming week.” It’s unclear exactly what that means; SPD itself did not respond to a request for comment.

Part of the encampment on 2nd Ave. Ext. S.

PDA director Lisa Daugaard said she’s disappointed that Co-LEAD, which started enrolling clients in Burien two months ago, has not made similar headway in Seattle. “We have a team of anti-racist, trauma-informed people with a great deal of lived experience and a lot of skills and compassion, ready to respond to the kind of public safety and public order issues that everyone seems to agree the police shouldn’t be asked to intervene with, and we are not able to move forward in Seattle,” Daugaard said.

“We have only received permission to try to find ten people” identified months ago, she added. Those people could now be anywhere, including out of state.

Meanwhile, the crisis of homelessness becomes more visible on streets like Second Ave. Ext. South, where the encampment has only grown and become more disorderly since LEAD started screening potential clients last month. The conditions on the sidewalk could make the encampment ripe for removal by the Navigation Team, which has continued to conduct occasional sweeps during the pandemic. The PDA tried to convince the city to let it enroll clients in Co-LEAD before the Navigation Team’s three most recent encampment removals, but was unsuccessful each time.

The role and makeup of the Navigation Team—which, under Mayor Durkan, has expanded to include a larger number of police officers every year—is now in question, with city council members drafting legislation to remove police from the team. Homeless service advocates and providers have long argued that human service and social workers, not armed officers, should be responsible for outreach to people living in encampments.

Protests like the one that took place during a recent sweep of South Weller Street, where demonstrators crowded against police barricades set up to keep them from entering a public street, now look like eerie precursors to the much larger protests against police violence that began less than two weeks later. Fundamentally, both groups of protesters were posing the same question: Do we need police to ensure public safety? And if not, what nonviolent alternatives might take their place?

White Council Member Fires His Lone Black Employee During Pandemic, Just Days Before Citywide Protests Against Racial Injustice

Seattle city council member Alex Pedersen. Image via Seattle.gov.

This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Toby Thaler did not sue the city to stop backyard cottages; instead, he spent years filing legal challenges to stop the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which, after significant delays, allows slightly more density in a sliver of exclusive single-family areas that make up the vast majority of residential land in Seattle. Marty Kaplan is the activist who worked to prevent the expansion of backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments. 

UPDATE: Since this post was published, a GoFundMe has been set up for people to contribute to the college fund of Lhorna Murray’s son Carter. Find out more and contribute here.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just days before protests against anti-Black police brutality and injustice exploded across the country, Seattle City Council member Alex Pedersen fired his lone Black staffer, Lhorna Murray, on May 20. A white Pedersen staffer, Alexa Halling, quit in solidarity with Murray, both Murray and Halling confirm.

Murray, a longtime community organizer who joined Pedersen’s campaign as a volunteer after he was “the only candidate who came to my community”—Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing development in Magnuson Park—says she believed she was hired “to bring the voices of the people who aren’t heard to the table, and who I feel like desperately need to be part of the conversations and part of the solutions. But the circumstances of my employment and the culture of the workplace made it pretty difficult to authentically be able to accomplish that.” Instead, Murray says her job was limited to checking emails and responding to constituents, plus scheduling Pedersen’s weekly in-district office hours.

City Council member Alex Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, fired his lone Black staffer in late May, in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented unemployment. One of his white staffers quit in protest.

Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, directed questions about the upheaval in his office to council communications director Dana Robinson Slote, who said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters.

His campaign platform included reinvigorating traditional neighborhood groups, restricting density (often framed through the lens of “protecting trees”) and protecting street parking in neighborhoods. His top policy hire was longtime neighborhood activist Toby Thaler, best known in recent years for suing the city to stop modest upzones in a sliver of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Density is a housing accessibility issue, which makes it a racial justice issue as well.

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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.

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Multiple staffers on the second floor expressed surprise that Pedersen would fire his council aide without providing her with a path to another job at the City in the middle of an epidemic that has caused massive unemployment and cratered the job market. Employees of council members can be fired at will, but no one I talked to in council offices said they were aware of any issue with Murray’s performance that would justify firing her without notice.

I have filed a records request for any confidentiality agreements or NDAs signed by staffers for every council office to see if any other offices require staffers to sign NDAs. The confidentiality agreement, which I have seen, says that the employee will “never” reveal any information that “is not generally known outside the context of the employment and is disclosed or obtained by the Employee as a consequence of his or her confidential relationship to the Employer.” With few exceptions, all communications by city council staffers are a matter of public record under the state Public Disclosure Act. Pedersen’s campaign focused on accountability and transparency, as has his rhetoric on the council.

“Racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.” —Former Alex Pedersen staffer Alexa Halling

Ex-Pedersen staffer  Halling says she quit “to protest the firing of my coworker Lhorna.”  Although a nondisclosure agreement Murray’s colleague Halling signed when she took the job prevented her from talking on record about conditions in Pedersen’s office or the specific reasons why she quit, she said that, in Seattle, “racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.”

The fact that Halling quit to express solidarity with Murray speaks to “who she is at the core,” Murray says. “She totally forfeited her livelihood, whereas most people”—those who consider themselves “allies”— “don’t even want to have an uncomfortable moment. …Every day that I knew Alexa, and every time there was something happening that wasn’t right, Alexa spoke up.”

The diversity of the council’s staff has increased as the council itself has become more diverse, but there are still only a relative handful of Black staffers, and no Black council members, on City Hall’s second floor. And, as Murray notes, “there’s a difference between having a diverse office and listening to a diverse set of opinions.”

Murray says she’s confident she’ll land on her feet. But she says her experience working for Pedersen, and her firing, has served as “a really valuable lesson” for her 18-year-old son, who volunteered on Pedersen’s campaign and who cast his first-ever vote for him.

Murray says she spent considerable personal capital convincing friends and neighbors in her community to vote for Pedersen over activist and filmmaker Shaun Scott, who is Black, telling them that “what he didn’t know, he was willing to learn.” Last week, she says, “he was having to make phone calls telling his friends he’s not going ot be able to go to [college] with them” because Murray, who’s a single mom, can no longer afford it.

Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate

If you’re looking for a takeaway from this Wednesday’s nearly six-hour hearing on legislation that would place some limits on the city’s authority to displace homeless people from encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Nothing is going to change. Representatives from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration made it abundantly clear, loudly and repeatedly, that the mayor does not consider policies governing encampment sweeps to be a matter that can be legislated under any circumstance, and that now is also not the time for discussing non-legislative solutions, such as changes to the administrative rules governing encampment sweeps in general.

Not that they would be likely to consider changes to those rules anyway—in the view of Durkan and her Human Services Department, the Multi-Disciplinary Administrative Rules, or MDARs, allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments without any prior notice, outreach, or offer of services in almost any circumstance involving one or more tents in a space that could theoretically be accessed by the public. Some of these encampments block sidewalks and entrances to public buildings; in non-pandemic times, these present a clear-cut case. But the Navigation Team also uses the “obstruction” exemption to remove tents tucked into remote areas of public parks, along unpaved, gravel-covered roadway shoulders, and in other areas that aren’t generally used by the public but are technically public spaces. In the fourth quarter of last year, 96 percent of encampment removals were exempt from notice requirements because the Navigation Team deemed them to be “obstructions.”

The mayor holds the cards here; because the proposal is emergency legislation, it requires not only seven council votes but her signature to go into effect.

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Senior deputy mayor Mike Fong began the executive branch’s assault on the legislation Wednesday by expressing incredulity that the city council was trying to prohibit the police from responding to crime in encampments, to prevent the public health department from addressing COVID outbreaks, and to make it impossible for private property owners to report people for trespassing. In fact, the legislation still allows sweeps in many circumstances, including threats to public health and public safety, and trespassing remains illegal.

Specifically, the bill, sponsored by council member Tammy Morales, defines the “extreme circumstances” the Durkan Administration alluded to when it “suspended” encampment removals in March, allowing sweeps when encampments are blocking sidewalk access or access to a building, when an encampment poses a public health or safety threat, or when an encampment poses a threat to infrastructure (for example, if people were lighting fires at the base of a bridge). The restrictions would end when Durkan declares the COVID-19 state of emergencybover, or at the end of the year, whichever comes first.

Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller  followed up by claiming that since the beginning of the pandemic, t the Navigation Team had placed hundreds of people “into shelter.” In fact, by the Navigation Team’s own admission, only 29 percent of encampment residents who “accepted” referrals actually spent a night in shelter in the fourth quarter of last year. The Navigation Team says this percentage has increased dramatically during the pandemic, but the city has not provided information about how many people actually ended up in shelters after the last two sweeps in the International District, despite multiple requests.  While the Navigation Team gets exclusive access to some beds, shelters have been fuller than usual because of the pandemic, and the reason “new” beds become available is because people leave, not because they are housed.

Finally, police chief Carmen Best recited a litany of the worst things that SPD has ever uncovered at encampments, going back to 2017, including sex trafficking, a man eating a sandwich full of maggots, and a laundry list of illegal items, including “meth, heroin, pills, machetes, swords, stolen property, guns,” and knives. If we allow encampments to exist, Best was arguing, all these horrors will continue “under cover, so to speak, the cover of the tents.” If we sweep the encampments out of existence, those crimes will disappear. Get rid of the tents, and the people sitting around exhibiting grotesque signs of mental illness will be cured or disappear.

None of these arguments hold water. Most of the crimes Best was describing, including drug dealing, gun and knife violence, and sex trafficking, happen more frequently in homes and inside buildings than they do in encampments; it is not the type of structure or kind of community a person lives in that causes crime, and Best presented no evidence that people living in tents are either inherently more criminal or more likely to commit the kinds of crimes she listed than people living in houses, apartments, or yurts.

Moreover, as council members pointed out, displacing an entire community because a few people living in that community are committing crimes, including serious ones, does not make any of those people safer. In general, sweeping encampments leads to people being dispersed into the community, which is what happened last week And removing dozens of people over the crimes of a few is not an approach police take to crimes that occur in any other setting. Police carried out a drug sting earlier this month that involved arrests at four tents, an apartment, and a house. Notably, no one called for removing all the other tenants from the apartment building, or for demolishing the house and tossing its contents in a dump truck. But that is routinely what happens at encampments, and the city argues‚ as Best did on Wednesday, that it’s for the good of their “vulnerable” residents. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate”