Durkan’s Proposed Budget Adds Funding for Cops, Congestion Pricing, and Buses, But Not for Safe Consumption or New Spending on Homelessness

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget proposes hiring 40 net new police officers, funds shelter and rental-assistance programs that had been at risk of being cut while keeping overall homeless funding basically flat, and dramatically increases transportation spending, at least on paper—the $130 million in new funding consists primarily of unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy, which is currently undergoing a “reset” because the city can’t pay for everything it promised when voters passed the levy in 2015. The new transportation funding includes funding 100,000 new Metro service hours, including “microtransit” shuttles to bring riders to the ends of the existing RapidRide lines and to the water taxi in West Seattle. Those additional hours will require Metro to  work overtime to add buses, drivers, and bus parking capacity, but Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the 100,000 hours were also included in the King County budget that County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted yesterday, as part of a total increase of 177,000 hours of bus service over the next two years.

City budget director Ben Noble said that if the city wanted to significantly increase spending on homelessness, “that is going to have to happen through reprioritizing [funding] or some as-yet-unidentified source of revenues.” Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that, given the ongoing homelessness crisis, “it is unconscionable to put forward a biennial budget … without additional resources for housing.”

The budget would also eliminate about 150 mostly vacant positions, eliminate funding for 217 basic shelter beds provided by the group SHARE after June of next year, fund a new city “ombud” independent from the Human Resources Department, to help employees in city department navigate the process of filing harassment or discrimination claims, and pay police officers $65 million in retroactive pay and benefits from the four years when they were working without a union contract. Officers, Durkan said, have “gone without even a raise but also [without] a [cost of living adjustment]. There hasn’t been pay raise since the beginning of 2014, so that’s four years of pay increases. …  You can get to seemingly large sums really quickly.”

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In contrast, the budget proposes making an “inflationary increase adjustment” to what it pays front-line homeless service providers of just 2 percent—less than the actual inflation rate.. Earlier this year, the Downtown Emergency Center sought more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. (Currently, the lowest-paying job listed on DESC’s job board pays $16.32 an hour.) “Even a non-police officer, just a clerical position in a city department, is earning more money in salary—let alone salary plus benefits—than somebody whom we are asking to go out under bridges and work with people who have had years of being brutalized in this world,” Eisinger says.

I’ll have a lot more to say about specific budget proposals over the coming weeks as the city council digs into the details in a series of budget briefings that start on Wednesday, but for now, here are a few more highlights from the mayor’s proposal:

• Durkan’s proposed budget does not include any additional funding for a supervised consumption site (mobile or permanent); instead, it simply pushes $1.3 million that was supposed to fund a place for users to consume their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, treatment, and case management forward into this year’s budget. Durkan said Monday that the city would not move forward with supervised consumption site until Durkan is “sure [that King County is] still willing to step up and fund the treatment portion of” a supervised consumption site. Activists, including at least one mother who had lost her son to a heroin overdose, stood outside the Pioneer Square fire station, where Durkan delivered her budget speech, protesting the fact that Durkan’s budget calls for continued inaction on safe consumption sites. It has been more than two years now since a King County task force unanimously recommended supervised consumption as part of a holistic strategy for tackling addiction to heroin and other drugs, the rest of which is slowly being implemented and funded. 

Marlys McConnell, whose son Andrew died of an accidental heroin overdose in January 2015, was wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt and holding up the right side of a large banner that read, “Overdose is killing a generation. Is it time to act yet, Mayor Durkan?” She said a safe consumption site could have helped diminish the shame her son felt about his own addiction, which he tried to hide from his family. “Had there been a space available for him, I would very much hope that he could have gone and taken advantage of it and been treated with love and respect and dignity. That could have been a bridge to treatment and other services early on.” McConnell is aware of the argument that safe consumption sites enable drug users to continue in their active addiction, but says, “You don’t get [recovery] ’til you get it.”

• Durkan said she would not support selling off more public land to pay for city budget priorities, as the city has done in the past. (The sale of land in South Lake Union funded new shelter beds and “tiny house village” encampments, as well as a rental-assistance program—all part of the nearly $20 million in services that this year’s budget proposal makes permanent.) The city has put its largest remaining property in South Lake Union, the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” on the market, but Durkan said the city would strongly prefer leasing the property long-term under a master lease to selling it outright. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and use it to build high-rise affordable housing. Noble told me that nothing technically bars the city from using at least some of the land for affordable housing (either city-owned or built by a nonprofit housing provider); however, he noted that because the Seattle Department of Transportation used restricted gas-tax funds to pay for some of the Mercer Corridor Project, which used part of the megablock for construction staging, the city has to pay back SDOT (a cost that could account for about 40 percent of the proceeds from the property) before it can start building anything or funding other projects on the property. The city also has taken out significant debt on the future proceeds from the sale of the megablock site, which would also have to be repaid. Finally, high-rise housing is generally much more expensive (and therefore less appropriate for affordable housing) than low-rise, because it involves glass and steel, although advances in technology are slowly making high-rise affordable housing more feasible.

• Durkan’s budget is mostly silent on the question of the over-budget Center City Streetcar (currently stalled so city consultants can determine whether the city should finish building the downtown connector or cut its losses), but it does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help operate the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. Previously, the city had backfilled streetcar revenue shortfalls periodically as revenues consistently fell short of projections. The new budget pays for those anticipated shortfalls up front. “We’re trying to be more upfront and honest about what it’s costing for the streetcar so that we won’t continue to run in the red and having to incur the debts that we’ve seen” in the past, Durkan said.

• The transportation budget is otherwise a mixed bag for transit proponents. It includes $1 million to pay for an expanded study of congestion pricing (as currently conceived, a toll for people who want to drive into the center city during certain hours); funds new investments in adaptive signal technology, which Durkan touted as a solution for slow and delayed buses but which the National Association of City Transportation Officials says “can result in a longer cycle length that degrades multi-modal conditions” and is best for moving cars in suburban areas; and proposes asking the legislature to change state law barring the city from using traffic cameras to enforce rules against blocking bike and bus lanes. “Right now, you have to have an actual officer come over and pull them over,” Durkan said—an expensive proposition. The budget also eliminates funding for the “Play Streets” pilot program, which permanently activated some street right-of-way for active (non-car) use, and cuts funding for any new “Pavement to Parks” projects, “takes underused streets and creates public spaces for community use on a year-round, daily basis,” according to the budget.

• The proposed budget moves almost half a million dollars from parks department spending on the city’s four golf courses into the separate capital budget as a “bridge solution” for an ongoing revenue shortfall. Although the city recently invested in improvements to its golf courses—hoping that better facilities, along with higher fees, would bring in more revenue—that hasn’t panned out, and the city has hired a consultant to evaluate the program. Asked why the golf courses aren’t penciling out the way the city had hoped, Noble said that it may be that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least some of the city’s golf courses and using them as sites for affordable housing.

The city council begins hearings on the mayor’s budget this week; a full schedule of budget meetings is available on the city’s website.

City Accelerates Homeless Encampment Removals, Doubling Pace in 2018

Over the first eight months of 2018, the city’s Navigation Team—a group of cops, human service providers, and other outreach workers who remove encampments the city deems unfit for human habitation—has steadily increased the number of unauthorized encampments they remove from hillsides, parks, and under bridges across the city, according to weekly Navigation Team reports that I obtained from the city and compiled into a searchable spreadsheet. Between January and August of this year, the pace of encampment removals accelerated from fewer than three a week to nearly six a week, meaning that the Navigation Team has roughly doubled the pace of sweeps since the beginning of this year. These numbers do not include removals of encampments or tents that team members deemed an imminent safety hazard, which can be removed without the usual 72-hour notice and are not included in the Navigation Team’s weekly reports.

Note: The city’s data does not specify the exact dates on which each encampment was removed, only the week in which it happened, so that rolling two-month average includes a small amount of bleedover from weeks that included days from two different months. The steady rise in encampment removals is represented by the trendline on the graph.This represents more than just an overall increase since 2017; the city is doing more sweeps, and it is increasing the number of sweeps faster than it did last year, when the pace of encampment removals grew both minimally and slowly. Between August and December of last year, for example, the average number of weekly encampment removals increased from about 2.5 to a little less than 3, using a rolling monthly average.

Rules established during last year’s city budget negotiations say that the Navigation Team is only supposed to force people to leave an encampment if they are violating a specific list of rules, which bar things like illegal activity other than drug use, camping near schools or facilities for the elderly, or creating an active health hazard for encampment residents or the surrounding community. The council also mandated that the Navigation Team start making weekly reports on encampment removals.

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Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the city’s Human Services Department responded to a list of detailed questions about the apparent acceleration of encampment removals, how the pace of removals compares on a monthly basis to last year’s numbers, the geographic locations of encampment removals, and the process by which encampments are targeted for removal by directing me to several posts on the city’s homelessness response blog, which consisted of announcements about tiny house villages, the amount of trash and syringes the city has removed, and Durkan’s plan to increase shelter beds. The Human Services Department followed up (and responded to my list of questions) by sending a copy of an upcoming blog post touting the work of the Navigation Team. The post acknowledges the overall increase in encampment removals between 2017 and 2018, and reads, in part, “Since launching in February of 2017, the Navigation Team has removed a total of 409 unsanctioned encampments. Of these encampments, 271 were given advance notice with repeated outreach including offers of service, storage of possessions, and shelter and 138 of the total encampments removed either posed an obstruction to public use, were located within the City’s designated emphasis areas, or were considered especially hazardous to public health and safety.”

The fact that garbage piles up at encampments is in many respects a product of official city policies. As the city council’s civil rights committee learned last week, Seattle Public Utilities has a pilot program to pick up garbage at just 10 encampments at a time citywide—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of small and large encampments that exist around the city.

In most cases, the Navigation Team reported that they had to remove an encampment because of garbage and waste buildup that was creating a health hazard for people living in the encampment. Of more than 150 encampment removal reports the Navigation Team has filed so far this year, only nine do not cite  the presence of trash or human waste among the reasons the encampment needed to be removed.

However, the fact that garbage piles up at encampments is in many respects a product of official city policies. As the city council’s civil rights committee learned last week, Seattle Public Utilities has a pilot program to pick up garbage at just 10 encampments at a time citywide—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of small and large encampments that exist around the city. Between January 2017 and July of this year, according to the Navigation Team’s most recent report, the pilot program has only served 28 encampments citywide, collecting about 292 tons of trash.

Council member Mike O’Brien pressed the issue last week, asking SPU solid waste director Ken Snipes whether the city’s policy is to “let the garbage accumulate” at encampments where trash piles up and goes uncollected by the city. The response, from both SPU and Navigation Team leaders Jackie St. Louis, was that the city encourages people at the pilot sites to participate in the program but does not emphasize trash cleanup anywhere else, beyond an on-call pickup program that allows encampment residents to put trash in bags on their own and call the city to come pick it up.

“We have, in some cases, gone to sites [with accumulated trash] where we’ve cleaned up around individuals and allowed folks to stay there,” St. Louis said, but “that’s not happening in great frequency, because, again, our priority is to help individuals get along the path to getting housed. … If the Navigation Team can get the residents to pick up the trash, the on-call services would be the tool for doing that.”

Thanks to an infusion of $500,000 from the state, the Navigation Team will soon add eight new members—a mix, according to Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, of “officers, outreach workers and data administrators,” plus the addition of former Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta.

Morning Crank: “Crime-Infused Shack Encampments”

“URGENT…tell them NO!”—the message of every call to action by anti-homeless groups in Seattle

1. A new group calling itself Unified Seattle has paid for Facebook ads urging people to turn up in force to oppose a new tiny house encampment in South Lake Union. The ads include the line “SOLUTIONS NOT SHACKS,” a reference to the fact that the encampments are made up of small wooden structures rather than tents. The encampment, which was funded as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” strategy, will include 54 “tiny houses” and house up to 65 people; it may or may not be “low-barrier,” meaning that it would people with active mental illness or addiction would be allowed to stay there. A low-barrier encampment at Licton Springs, near Aurora Avenue in North Seattle, has been blamed for increased crime in the area, although a recent review of tiny house villages across Seattle, including Licton Springs, found that the crime rate typically goes down, not up, after such encampments open.

“URGENT community meeting on NEW Shack Encampment this Thursday, June 28!” the ad says. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” Despite the reference to “our neighborhood,” the ads appear to directed at anyone who lives “near Seattle.” Another indication that Unified Seattle is not a homegrown South Lake Union group? Their website indicates that the group is sponsored by the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Safe Seattle, and Speak Out Seattle, all citywide groups in existence long before the South Lake Union tiny house village was ever announced.

“The city has imposed an unconstitutional income tax on residents which was ultimately struck down by the courts,” the website claims. “It passed a job-killing head-tax that was embarrassingly repealed. Now, it has undertaken a campaign to seize valuable land and build crime-infused shack encampments to house city homeless. All this in the course of six months.”  The income tax, which actually passed a year ago and was struck down by a court, was never implemented. The head tax was never implemented, either. And no land is being “seized” to build the encampment; the land is owned by the city of Seattle.

The meeting is on Thursday night at 6pm, at 415 Westlake Avenue N.

2. Overshadowed by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump’s Muslim Ban 3.0 was another ruling that could have significant implications for pregnant women in King County. The Court’s ruling in NIFLA v. California struck down a state law requiring that so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—fake clinics run by anti-choice religious organizations that provide false and misleading information to pregnant women in an effort to talk them out of having abortions—post signs saying what services they do and don’t provide. In its 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the California law violated the center’s First Amendment rights (to lie to women).

Earlier this year, the King County Board of Health adopted a rule requiring so-called crisis pregnancy centers to post signs that say “This facility is not a health care facility” in 10 different languages. Crisis pregnancy centers typically offer sonograms, anti-abortion “counseling,” and misinformation about the risks associated with abortion, including (false) claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer and a higher risk of suicide.

In a statement, Board of Health director and King County Council member Rod Dembowski said that he and the county’s legal team were mindful of the California challenge when drafting the rule. “We intentionally crafted King County’s rule to be less broad than the California … requirements, while still ensuring that women who are or may be pregnant understand that limited service pregnancy centers are not health care facilities,” Dembowski said. “If we need to fine tune the particulars of the form of the disclosure, we will do so.  Regardless, I am optimistic that the County’s more narrow regulation that was supported with a strong factual record is constitutional and will remain in place.”

3. A presentation by the city’s Human Services Department on how well its programs are performing supported the narrative that the Pathways Home approach to getting people off the streets, which emphasizes rapid rehousing and diversion programs over temporary shelter and transitional housing, is working. But it continued to raise a question the city has yet to answer directly: What does the city mean by “permanent housing,” and how does they know that people who get vouchers for private-market apartments through rapid rehousing programs remain in their apartments once their voucher funding runs out?

According to HSD’s first-quarter performance report, which department staffers presented to the council’s housing committee on Tuesday, 83 percent of people in rapid rehousing ended up in “permanent housing” after their vouchers ran out. Meanwhile, according to HSD director Jason Johnson, aggregated data suggests that 95 percent of the people enrolled in rapid rehousing were still housed after six months. In contrast, the department found that just 59 percent of people in transitional housing moved directly into permanent housing, and that just 3.8 percent of people in basic shelter did so, compared to more than 20 percent of people in “enhanced” shelter with 24/7 capacity and case management. Ninety-eight percent of people in permanent supportive housing were counted as “exiting” to permanent housing, giving permanent supportive housing the best success rate of any type of program.

However, there are a few factors that make those numbers somewhat less definitive than they sound. First of all, “permanent housing” is not defined as “housing that a person is able to afford for the long term after his or her voucher runs out”; rather, the term encompasses any housing that isn’t transitional housing or shelter, no matter how long a person actually lives in it. If your voucher runs out and you get evicted after paying the rent for one month, then wind up sleeping on a cousin’s couch for a while, that still counts as an exit to permanent housing, and a rapid rehousing success.

Second, the six-month data is aggregated data on how many people reenter King County’s formal homelessness system; the fact that a person gets a voucher and is not back in a shelter within six months does not automatically mean that they were able to afford market rent on their apartment after their voucher ran out (which, after all, is the promise of rapid rehousing.)

Third, the fact that permanent supportive housing received a 98 percent “success” rate highlights the difficulty of basing performance ratings on “exits to permanent housing”; success, in the case of a program that consists entirely of permanent housing, means people simply stayed in the program. To give an even odder example, HSD notes an 89 percent rate of “exits to permanent housing” from diversion programs, which are by definition targeted at people who are already housed but at risk of slipping into homelessness. “Prevention is successful when people maintain housing and don’t become homeless,” the presentation says. It’s unclear how the city counts “exits to permanent housing” among a population that is, by definition, not homeless to begin with. I’ll update if and when I get more information from HSD about how people who are already housed are being counted toward HSD’s “exits to permanent housing” rate.

4 .Last week, after months of inaction from One Table—a regional task force that was charged with coming up with regional solutions to the homelessness crisis—King County Executive Dow Constantine announced plans to issue $100 million in bonds to pay for housing for people earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle-area median income (AMI), calling the move an “immediate ste[p] to tackle the region’s homelessness crisis.”

That sounds like an impressive amount of money, and it is, with a few major caveats: First, the money isn’t new. Constantine is just bumping up the timeline for issuing bonds that will be paid back with future proceeds from the existing tax on hotel and motel stays in King County. Second, the $100 million—like an earlier bond issuance estimated at $87 million—won’t be available until 2021, when the debt on CenturyLink Field (for which the hotel/motel tax was originally intended) is paid off. King County has been providing some funds to housing developers since 2016 by borrowing from itself now and promising to pay itself back later. Both the $87 million figure and the new $100 million figure are based on county forecasts of future tourism revenue. And third, the amount of hotel/motel tax revenue dedicated to affordable housing could, under state law, be much higher—two-thirds more than what Constantine proposed last week—if the county weren’t planning to spend up to $190 million on improvements at Safeco Field that include luxury suite upgrades and improvements to the concession stands. That’s because although state law dictates that at least 37.5 percent of the hotel/motel tax be spent on arts and affordable housing, and that whatever money remains be spent on tourism, it does not limit the amount that can be spent on either arts or housing. Theoretically, the county could dedicate 37.5 percent of its revenues to arts spending and the remaining 62.5 percent to housing.

The fact  that Constantine is describing the new bonds as a solution to homelessness is itself a matter of some debate. Under state law, the hotel/motel tax can only be used to build “workforce housing” near transit stops, which the county interprets to mean housing for people making between 30 and 80 percent of AMI. Homeless people generally don’t earn anywhere close to that. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that although “taking steps that will help to address the critical need for affordable housing for low-wage workers and people who can afford housing at 30 to 80 percent is a good  thing, unless there’s a plan to prioritize those units for people experiencing homelessness, along with resources to help buy down some of the rents for people for whom 30 to 80 percent is out of reach, I’m not sure how that helps address homelessness.”

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Morning Crank: To Reduce the Door-to-Door Burden of People Already in Crisis

Yesterday, after city council member Kshama Sawant announced that her committee would hold a special public hearing to readjudicate the cuts to women’s overnight shelters and hygiene centers that the council made last year, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post enumerating all the hygiene services (showers, laundry facilities, and restrooms) that will be available in the 21 “enhanced shelters” it plans to fund this year.  “Enhanced shelters provide more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to reduce the door-to-door burden for people already in crisis to meet their basic needs like eating breakfast, taking a shower, doing laundry, and sleeping,” the post says. (What HSD fails to mention: The services available at those shelters probably won’t be available to people who aren’t clients at those shelters—as of last year, council members would only say that they hoped some of the shelters would choose to make their facilities available to non-clients on a drop-in basis).

The post even goes on the defensive about the well-documented lack of (legal) places for people living outdoors to relieve themselves, noting that the city “supports 117 restrooms available to all members of the public,” including Port-a-Potties near five transit stops and restrooms at libraries, community centers and parks. Parks close later than community centers, but they do close; meanwhile, the city is currently embroiled in a massive debate about encampments, one aspect of which is whether people who attempt to sleep in parks overnight should be removed.

The city budget adopted last year hews to the principles of “Pathways Home,” a human services and homelessness funding framework that deprioritizes projects that don’t focus specifically on getting people into permanent housing. As a result, the budget  eliminated or reduced funding for three downtown hygiene centers, which “only” provide places for people to clean up and use the restroom. One of those three, the Women’s Referral Center, is on the agenda for Sawant’s public hearing next Monday, along with the SHARE/WHEEL-run women’s shelter for which Sawant also wants to restore funding. (SHARE runs a bare-bones men’s shelter; its sister organization, WHEEL, runs a similar shelter for women. Both had their funding cut last year.).

It seems unlikely that Sawant’s time-tested tactic of holding a public hearing and organizing her supporters to show up to testify in favor of her proposal will restore long-term funding to either WHEEL or the Catholic Community Services-run Women’s Referral Center, but Sawant is taking every opportunity to draw attention to the issue. At a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday, Sawant argued that the roughly $100,000 the city plans to spend on a fence to keep homeless people from erecting tents under the Ballard Bridge “could be enough to extend bare-bones bridge funding for the [SHARE and WHEEL] shelters for the rest of the year.” Funding for both WHEEL’s and SHARE’s shelters is set to run out in June.

Currently, the fence in Ballard is just a temporary structure—a crude construction fence, topped by razor wire, intended to keep homeless people from taking shelter under the bridge. On Tuesday, as I called around trying to get an answer to the question, “Who decided it was necessary to build a $100,000 fence under the Ballard Bridge?”, it became clear that the fence, like the infamous row of bike racks meant to deter homeless people in Belltown, was a political hot potato no one wanted to handle—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office directed questions about the fence and the bike racks to the department of Finance and Administrative Services and the Seattle Department of Transportation, which each deflected responsibility on the other agency. (SDOT put up the fence; the question is whether FAS or its director, Fred Podesta, ordered them to do so back when the city’s Emergency Operations Center was holding daily work group meetings to respond to the city’s homelessness state of emergency*). Both departments agree that the fence is necessary, however, because of the risk that homeless campers will accidentally set the bridge on fire, causing a collapse. Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes Ballard, says he considers the fence “particularly problematic,” because “it doesn’t solve anything—I drove by there a few nights ago [before the fence was up] and there were five tents there. I’m almost certain those folks are not housed. Probably they were just destabilized. So now we’re $100,000 poorer and no one’s better off. What is our long-term strategy here? Is our ultimate goal to fence off every structure in the city because someone might use that structure as a place to live?”

A similar story is playing out around the notorious bike racks. SDOT installed those bike racks, too (and highlighted them on Twitter) but earlier this week, the agency sent out a statement saying that the policy of the Durkan administration (and thus SDOT) was not to use bike racks as impediments to encampments. Several council members praised the agency Tuesday for agreeing to remove the racks and reinstall them elsewhere in the city. “I think this is a great sign from our new mayor, from the leadership at SDOT, that … we will not go down the route that other cities have gone, using hostile architecture to displace folks,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said.

But is it? Durkan has said she supports removing the bike racks, but her office did not respond to questions about what her strategy will be for ensuring that people living unsheltered do not set up tents on sidewalks. And it’s unclear whether Durkan’s policy shop, which is still staffing up, has come up with an answer to the question: If not bike racks and fences, then what? Ultimately, the buck will stop not with any particular city department, but with the new mayor—and two months in, she still hasn’t provided a clear indication of how she plans to deal with unauthorized encampments.

* This story originally said that the EOC has “stood down,” which was incorrect; the work groups no longer meet daily, but the EOC is still responding to the homelessness crisis.

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

Morning Crank: Based on Unrealistic Expectations

georCity homelessness director George Scarola—who does not like being called a homelessness czar—showed up early for a forum at the Greenwood Senior Center Wednesday night and ended up chatting with me, a few folks who identified themselves as neighborhood residents, and Harley Lever, founder of the group Safe Seattle.

While we waited for folks from the Greenwood Community Council to set up the room, I asked Scarola about a protest that temporarily stymied city workers trying to clear out an encampment under the south end of the Ballard Bridge on Tuesday. Scarola said the incident taught the city that they may need to do things differently next time, possibly by bringing in more police. I asked whether the city had a contingency plan if protests like the one Tuesday became common. Scarola said the city hasn’t gotten to the point—they’re still rolling out new rules for clearing encampments—and asked me, rhetorically, what the demonstrators were protesting. “Are they protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions?” he asked, referring to the “Triangle” encampment the city plans to sweep next week. “Because no one should be allowed to live like that.”

During the forum, which I livetweeted and Storified for those who want the blow-by-blow, Scarola got a bit defensive when audience members suggested the city doesn’t have good data on who is homeless and why, and when Lever, who’s from Boston, suggested that his hometown had all but solved unsheltered homelessness . (Scarola reminded Lever that Boston’s winter, when the city does its annual homeless count, is almost unsurvivable without shelter, and pointed out that the city with the largest number of unsheltered homeless people is … Honolulu.)

Scarola also suggested, not for the first time, that the city might deviate somewhat from the recommendations laid out in Pathways Home, a set of recommendations based in large part on a report by Ohio consultant Barb Poppe and released last year. Pathways Home recommends directing new spending on homelessness toward rapid rehousing with short-term housing subsidies, rather than new shelters for those currently sleeping outside. “Barb Poppe would like us to spend less money on shelters and more money diverting people from becoming unsheltered,” Scarola said. “We don’t totally agree with every recommendation Barb Poppe made, but we agree with the thrust of them.”

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In addition to the Poppe report, Pathways Home is based on a report by a firm called Focus Strategies, which says the city “should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” And yet, at a briefing on the results of a new survey of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle Wednesday, staff for the city’s Human Services Department suggested that the city’s goal was to find or build affordable housing options in the city itself, rather than requiring people to move far away from their support systems, service providers, communities, and jobs, often with no reliable transit to get them back into the city.  It will be interesting to see how the city reconciles these seemingly contradictory impulses—to preserve diversity in Seattle and avoid exporting poverty to the suburbs, while also ensuring that people can afford to pay the full price of housing when their vouchers run out after three to six months.

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

Morning Crank: New Sweeps Rules and New Dem Party Chair

1. The city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) released new draft rules for encampment sweeps this morning, after months of delay and a lengthy debate over whether the sweeps rules should be radically revised (as council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien, along with the ACLU of Washington, proposed last year) or beefed up.

A few highlights:

  • Before removing an encampment, the city must offer “alternative locations for individuals in an encampment or identify available housing or other shelter for encampment occupants.”
  • People living in unauthorized encampments that obstruct sidewalks or other city property can be removed immediately, with no advance warning.
  • In other cases, the city will provide 72 hours’ notice of an encampment removal, and will remove the encampment within a week.
  • “Encampments” are redefined to include a single tent, giving people sleeping in isolated tents the right to notice before their tents are removed and their belongings confiscated.
  • When deciding which encampments to sweep immediately, the city will give priority to those where illegal activity is occurring, with the exception of simple “illegal substance abuse.” The city can also prioritize encampments for sweeps based on the presence of garbage and undefined “active health hazards” to homeless campers or the surrounding community, or proximity to schools or facilities serving the elderly.
  • The city will throw away or donate all personal property it removes from encampment sites within 60 days. (Practically speaking, when the city confiscates the personal property of people experiencing homelessness, they never get it back–as the Seattle Times documented in an excellent piece last summer.) The city will also offer a delivery option for people who can’t get to the storage facility.
  • Areas where people camp frequently–such as a longtime site behind the Ballard Locks, or the infamous Jungle–will be designated as “emphasis areas” and subject to daily inspections, and can be fenced off to deter people from camping there. (A proposal by Murray and 36th District state Sen. Reuven Carlyle to surround the Jungle with razor-wire fencing was rejected last year as impractical and inhumane.)

The public has two weeks to comment on the new rules, which you can read in full here.

2. Shortly after the Washington State Democratic Party elected former Seattle city council member and Murray police reform advisor Tina Podlodowski as its new chair  (Podlodowski, although a vocal, longtime Clinton supporter, ousted longtime chair Jaxon Ravens on the strength of a resurgent cadre of disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters on the party’s central committee), the Dems’ executive committee met to reportedly discuss, among other things, reducing the salaries of both Podlodowski and the state party’s executive director, currently Karen Deal. The committee is currently composed of 12 men and six women. I have calls out to confirm the details of the meeting and to find out more about the reported pay-cut proposal.

Some Questions for the City About its Progress on Homelessness

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After spending two hours listening to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray discuss homelessness with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at Seattle U last week, I came away impressed by Murray’s obvious evolution on some key issues related homelessness, including encampment sweeps, drug addiction, and the need for shelter that accommodates substance users.

After watching several of Murray’s department heads brief the council on the progress the city is making on several key issues related to homelessness, including encampment sweeps, needle disposal, and shelter that accommodates substance users, I just came away with a lot of questions.

Murray, who was joined onstage by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, journalist Joni Balter, and SU Master of Public Administration Director Larry Hubbell, expressed frustration at the state and federal government for “fail[ing] to come forward” to supplement the tens of millions the city spends on homelessness every year, and expressed frustration at the kind of complaints he hears from Seattle residents about homeless people in their neighborhoods. “I have heard from so many people that they know exactly who the homeless are and what their problem is and how to solve it,” Murray said. “The conversation [in Seattle] is so polarized, it worries me about our ability to [be a] model for our nation for how you deal with issues of poverty and inequality, and in particular, homelessness.”

Two days later, at a meeting of the council’s human services committee, representatives from several city departments delivered an update on the city’s progress toward building low-barrier shelters and dealing with unauthorized encampments that illustrated some of the challenges Murray was talking about. A 24/7 low-barrier shelter that was supposed to open last month still lacks a location and opening date; new, more humane encampment cleanup protocols remain a work in progress; and the city’s most visible response to the heroin epidemic so far has been the wholly inadequate placement of six needle collection boxes around the city.

Officials from the Human Services Department, Seattle Public Utilities, Finance and Administrative Services, and Murray’s office described the progress they’ve made responding to neighbors’ complaints about trash and needles, touting, among other initiatives, an “on-call” needle response system to ensure that when a neighbor calls to report a needle on public property, SPU will arrive to dispose of the needle within 24 hours. They also touted the work they’ve done to expedite trash pickup in and around encampments, which SPU deputy director Ken Snipes said has led neighbors to say things like “This is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it.”

But they left many questions unanswered—about the schedule for delayed initiatives, about what the city is doing to ensure that it doesn’t discard important belongings when it sweeps occupied encampments, and about what the city plans to do to improve safety not just for neighborhood residents upset by needles, but for people shooting up on park benches and in public bathrooms. Here are a few of the questions I would like to have heard Murray’s staffers address.

Why can’t the city force the state to pick up garbage on state-owned property?

As council member Tim Burgess pointed out, despite SPU’s best efforts to clean up trash and provide Dumpsters around encampments, there are still huge piles of trash and debris under bridges and beside overpasses around the city. “It’s frustrating that we have this accumulation of garbage and trash all over Seattle. … It’s not healthy, it’s not good for the city, and it certainly sends the wrong signals to the taxpayers as to how we spend their money,” Burgess said. Typically, the city responds to questions about trash under bridges by pointing out that most of those sites are owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and that was Snipes’ response yesterday, but Burgess wasn’t having it. “I’ve been hearing this for years: ‘Well, that’s WSDOT property,’  therefore we think we’re somehow paralyzed and can’t act.” If WSDOT won’t clean up messes on its property, Burgess said, then “we should issue citations to WSDOT.  It’s inside the city of Seattle. Our ordinances apply. Why do we take so long?”

Snipes’ response: A familiar refrain. “We’re reaching out and we’ve connected with them and we’re making some headway on a plan to address those areas.

Now that the Seattle Office for Civil Rights no longer oversees each encampment sweep, what is the city doing to ensure that the civil rights of people living outdoors aren’t being violated? 

Back in December, city council members learned that under the mayor’s (still unreleased but, according to Potter, “imminent”) new protocols for encampment sweeps, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights would no longer be monitoring encampment removals and making sure workers were complying with rules about notice and disposal of people’s possessions. A Seattle Times report last month detailed many apparent violations of existing protocols for encampment removal, and described several sweeps that were shut down after SOCR monitors observed violations of the rules.

In the future, FAS director Chris Potter said, SOCR will “continue to monitor the [sweeps] in an auditing capacity—they’ll come out in the field from time to time, and have access, like everyone else to all the information [about specific sweeps] on our external website,” including photos of specific encampments before and after the city enters, conditions at sites chosen for sweeps, and a general sense of what happened to the people living there. (When council member Sally Bagshaw asked specifically if the city’s new encampment information website would include details about outcomes for the individual people displaced by sweeps, Potter demurred, saying only that there would be a “ramp-up period” to get the new protocols in place before the city could attempt to provide more detailed information about the people being swept up in the sweeps.)

The departments’ vague answers about what role the civil rights office will play in monitoring encampment sweeps in the future prompted council member Mike O’Brien to say, “It is going to require a certain level of independence [for the civil rights office] and a willingness to highlight where there’s room to improvement.

“These departments all report to the mayor, and so—not to put words in the mayor’s mouth, but none of us want to be embarrassed. So I want to make sure that the civil rights department will be able to be somewhat independent and make clear statements when the city makes mistakes.”

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Why doesn’t the city put sharps containers in more public places, particularly places that are actually convenient to injection-drug users?

It’s been three months since the mayor announced plans to place ten new needle-disposal boxes around the city. To date, the city has added a total of six new sharps containers, distributed across the city from Mineral Springs Park in far North Seattle to the center median at 27th and Cheasty in Beacon Hill. This model requires injection-drug users (who, let’s be clear, cluster in places like Ballard, Capitol Hill, and Belltown that are nowhere near the new disposal sites) to schlep to one of the six designated locations to dispose of dirty needles. If the goal is to get drug users to stop leaving their needles in restroom trash cans and public parks, wouldn’t it make more sense to make sharps containers ubiquitous, at least in places (like libraries and parks) where drug users tend to congregate?

Granted, the sharps containers are getting used—Snipes said the  SPU contractors who pick up the boxes report that they’re “almost full”—but the demand for safe disposal sites clearly exceeds the supply. (For example, Snipes said SPU’s rapid-response needle team had picked up 1,243 individual needles over the last two months.)  On balance, it seems that giving drug users an easy way to safely dispose of needles on site would be a saner approach than the current model, which is to deny users a place to dispose of sharps and then deploy an army of on-call SPU workers to drive  around the city plucking individual needles off the ground.

But seriously, what’s the holdup with the Navigation Center?

The Navigation Center—a 24/7 low-barrier shelter that will not bar people for being intoxicated or high and will allow partners, possessions, and pets—was supposed to open in December. A month later, the city has yet to even announce where the center will be, and officials at the table Thursday cited unspecified ongoing “negotiations” as the reason for the holdup. “I won’t be able to say when the site negotiations will be complete, nor do I have a timeline about when that site will be open,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said. “What I did want to share today is that we’re working with [the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which will run the Navigation Center] to set up some interim services” to replicate the services that will be centralized at the Navigation Center.

Part of the problem with providing people access to a bunch of services while they’re still living on the streets, as I reported earlier this month, is that it’s much harder to navigate a complicated system when you’re living out of a shopping cart and fighting every day for physical survival. Having DESC serve as a clearinghouse for services may be a step in the right direction, but it’s a long way from the Navigation Center model, which recognizes that people need a sense of stability before they can start jumping through the hoops that lead to housing.

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Navigation Center Behind Schedule, Fourth Encampment Off Table


A proposed low-barrier, 24/7 shelter called the Navigation Center won’t open by the end of the year as planned because of issues with site selection, city officials told the city council’s human services committee Monday. A second planned 24/7 shelter will be much more like a bare-bones traditional shelter—not pets, property, or partners allowed. Four planned encampments may now be three, since the city has had trouble locating a suitable site for the fourth. And ongoing sweeps to “clean up” unauthorized tent encampments will no longer be monitored by the Office of Civil Rights, whose work revamping protocols for tearing down encampments the mayor’s office says is now complete.

Oh, and those trash cleanups at encampments that neighbors fed up with seeing litter and needles have been demanding? They’re not exactly working out as planned, in part because some trash contractors hired by the city are refusing to venture into the encampments.

The mayor’s director of homelessness and officials from the Human Services Department, Finance and Administrative Services, and Seattle Public Utilities briefed the council on the status of what the mayor’s office is now calling “Bridging the Gap”—the plan to add new encampments and shelter beds while the city ramps up its large-scale plan to address homelessness, a voucher-based “rapid rehousing” proposal called Pathways Home. As homelessness director George Scarola described it today, Bridging the Gap is “an interim plan that is how the city responds not just to encampments, but to the issues of garbage, needles, and crime that community members associate with encampments.”

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George Scarola, the mayor’s homelessness director

There’s a lot to unpack from today’s status report, starting with the news that the Navigation Center is behind schedule.

The contract to operate the Navigation Center went to the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the most experienced provider of low-barrier shelter services in Seattle, last month. Despite initial plans to open the center in November or December —in time to get some hard-to-house people inside for the winter—the city has yet to announce a site, which pushes the project back at least a couple of months. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” said Jason Johnson, HSD’s deputy director, today.

When we spoke last week, Johnson told me that the Navigation Center will be designed to shelter people with barriers (including active problems with substance abuse) that have kept them out of traditional shelters, and won’t be a traditional first-come, first-served facility like DESC’s large shelter at the Morrison Hotel downtown; outreach workers will identify candidates for the center at homeless encampments and on the streets (in San Francisco, the Navigation Center typically identifies new “guests” when the city sweeps homeless encampments there)and bring them to the center. When they arrive, Johnson continued, they’ll get notice of the center’s “30-day expectation”—that is, the understanding that guests are expected to leave the center within 30 days of their arrival. “It’s not that on day 29, someone’s going to be given an eviction notice, but yes, we set a 30-day expectation on all our shelter programs,” Johnson said. The average shelter stay in King County is around 200 days.

Johnson mentioned the 30-day expectation in today’s council meeting, calling the Navigation Center “a place where people can remain in a shelter with a roof over their head, but the entire time they’re there, we’re working on their exit.”

Those who don’t qualify for the Navigation Center, or can’t find a space in the new encampments or existing shelters, would also have the option of spending the night in one of the new low-barrier shelters the city said it also hoped to open next year. These lower-cost facilities  would include lockers, but people wouldn’t be able to hold on to large quantities of possessions or bring their pets or partners with them. Most likely, these shelters would look similar to DESC’s current facilities, which include small lockers and gender-segregated dorms with metal bunk beds set up head-to-foot across a large, warehouse-style room.

Alternately, they could apply for a spot at one of the city’s three new sanctioned encampments, in North Seattle, South Seattle, and South Park. However, those new camps will house fewer than 200 people, leaving thousands still outside. Originally, Mayor Ed Murray had announced that the city would open four new sanctioned camps, but Scarola said the city had had trouble siting a fourth, and anyway, “They will fill gradually, they won’t fill overnight, and we’ll see what the market [need] is for the fourth site.

Ultimately, city staffers emphasized, the goal is to transition the county’s entire human services and homeless housing infrastructure over to the framework described in Pathways Home, a plan touted by Mayor Ed Murray and most council members that would provide homeless people with short-term vouchers to help them rent apartments on the private market, and assumes that many people will have to be severely rent-burdened or move far away from the city of Seattle to find a place they can afford.

(At a public forum on rapid rehousing the other night, several service providers and housing experts panned this plan for imposing de facto segregation on low-income people, and suggested the real problem was not a lack of flexibility on the part of homeless people, but a lack of affordable housing. In response to those critiques. HSD director Katherine Lester shot back, “Are we waiting for a perfect situation? Or do we want people to get indoors?”)

The Navigation Center will shelter about 75 people. The three new encampments might add (substandard) shelter for another 150 to 200. That still leaves thousands of people sleeping outside, in doorways and alleys and the unsanctioned encampments that cause neighborhoods such consternation. To address these perceived public safety issues—including, council members and staffers noted pointedly, the safety of people living in encampments—the city plans to continue its practice of periodic sweeps, under protocols that are still being hashed out by the mayor’s office.

“One of the most contentious topics that [the mayor’s] task force [on encampments] took up was the protocols on where and when city would be cleaning up encampments,” said FAS director Chris Potter. “We embrace the need for, and process of, having other people weigh in on the [protocols], and I fully expect that will be a very extensive and contentious process.” Potter said council members could expect to see a draft of the sweeps protocols by the end of January.

Council member Lisa Herbold said she had been told back in November that whatever the protocols end up being, the Seattle Office of Civil Rights—which was charged with monitoring encampment removals and making sure workers were complying with rules about notice and disposal of people’s possessions—will no longer be monitoring the sweeps. A Seattle Times report yesterday detailed many apparent violations of existing protocols for encampment removal between September and November of this year, and described several sweeps that were shut down after SOCR monitors observed violations of the rules.

“I want to know if the executive feels there is not value to be added by the unique perspective that SOCR brings to monitoring this work, and if an FAS staffer can adequately replace that value,” Herbold said. Potter responded that, basically, SOCR has been helpful at suggesting new practices, like posting stickers on tents to give their occupants advance notice of sweeps, but “we want to operationalize and routinize the process of encampment removal.” Then he changed the subject to the reports FAS plans to publish detailing the outcome of each future encampment sweep.

Despite what sounded like an awful lot of bad news—no more civil-rights monitoring of sweeps, fewer encampments than anticipated, delays to the Navigation Center, a huge unmet need—both Scarola and committee chair Sally Bagshaw seemed remarkably bullish on the city’s homelessness efforts. “We are at the point where big changes are going to happen, and people in our city are going to be able to see that big changes are happening,” Bagshaw said. It was unclear to which people she was referring.

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

Mayor: Zero Tolerance for Camping In Parks, Four New Official Encampments

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At a press conference Thursday evening, flanked by council members Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Debora Juarez, Mayor Ed Murray announced that he planned to propose legislation authorizing four new sanctioned encampments for unsheltered homeless people in the city—three with strict rules, including a sobriety requirement, and one “low-barrier” encampment where people could show up drunk or high; additional funds for private contractors and nonprofits to create more shelter space for the city’s estimated 3,000 homeless people, and plans for trash cleanup, needle pickups, and to make showers available at some parks and public pools. (Notably, he proposed adding 10 new sharps disposal containers across the city; a more effective proposal might be to put one in every library and public building.)

That was the carrot. The stick is that Murray’s proposal will ban all camping in public parks, including not just the “active” areas that all sides in this debate have long agreed are unsuitable for campers, but remote and unimproved areas as well. “When it comes to sidewalks and parks, people have been removed and will continue to be removed, period,” Murray said. “We know it is just unacceptable to camp. We can’t have people in our parks, we can’t have people on our sidewalks, we can’t have people on school property or in areas where they’re at risk—either the homeless or other people.”

People in unauthorized encampments that are not in parks will be directed to any available shelter beds as they are now, but “if we do not have enough capacity, we will not be moving these people,” Murray said. He also acknowledged that many people prefer not to stay in shelters, which segregate clients by gender, require them to line up at night and be out by 6 or 7 in the morning, and which can be dangerous, dirty, and frightening places.

Murray’s line in the sand around parks will no doubt be reassuring to neighborhood activists who have bombarded council members and the mayor’s office in recent days with petitions, mass emails, and phone calls urging them to reject a proposal drafted by the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services and sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, which would allow homeless people to stay in unimproved areas of parks. Perhaps channeling some of their talking points, the mayor said tonight that for many elderly people on fixed incomes, community centers in parks are “the only place to socialize and recreate,” and that the same is true for many poor families. Homeless people in tents, the mayor was saying, prevent families from using parks and senior citizens from using community centers.

Murray emphasized stepped-up outreach to people living outdoors. He said his plan would double the city’s “outreach capacity” and create “a citywide group of outreach teams that will work in coordination with police and cleanup crews to connect those individuals with services … particularly those with substance abuse.” It’s worth noting, however, that the city’s “outreach” so far has typically preceded sweeps, so people living in encampments might understandably not trust city workers who show up, hand extended, saying they’re there to help.

Murray’s announcement essentially circumvents Burgess’ and O’Brien’s competing proposals, which Bagshaw said she would put on the back burner until after the budget process and the Thanksgiving recess. But expect some heated discussion on this tomorrow morning at 9:30, when Bagshaw’s health and human services committee will meet to discuss the encampment legislation and the mayor’s alternative proposal, which he’ll officially send to the council next week.

Ultimately, Murray repeated several times tonight, the city can’t solve its homelessness problem alone; it needs funding from the federal government, which has not been especially forthcoming. If the windstorm that’s expected to hit Seattle this weekend gets as bad as the 1962 Columbus Day storm that killed 46 people, Murray said, “I’ll declare a state of emergency and federal and state funds will show up.” But for the homelessness state of emergency, which kills some 60 people every year, Seattle is on its own, Murray said.

“We as a city do not have the resources to do this ourselves. If we want more capacity or more shelter, we need our partners to step up.

“These are not the solutions. This is not a model. This is an attempt to provide some shelter and some services until we can truly transform our system.”

As Task Force Proposes “Guiding Principles,” Council Considers Amended Sweeps Protocols

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Mayor Ed Murray’s 18-member Task Force on Unsanctioned Encampment Cleanup Protocols held its final meeting on Tuesday morning, a day after Mayor Ed Murray released a budget that included $2.8 million to “implement [their] recommendations” and a day before the council committee in charge of updating and improving the city’s current policy on homeless sweeps held one of its final meetings on a set of new sweeps protocols that the mayor opposes.  The legislation in front of the council, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of  Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments, except those in “unsuitable,” “unsafe,” or “hazardous” locations, without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing.”

Originally, the mayor’s encampment task force was charged with crafting new encampment cleanup protocols, which would be integrated into legislation that the mayor would transmit to the council by the end of September. Instead—after the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services circumvented the mayor by proposing legislation of their own, which District 6 council member Mike O’Brien sponsored—the task force ended up producing a general, innocuous list of “guiding principles” that are now supposed to guide the council as it amends the ACLU legislation.

Former city council member Sally Clark, who chaired the task force, said its mission got muddied “the moment that the task force was announced, because pretty much in the same moment, the legislation was proposed at council to change the basis of the protocols that the city uses for intervening in situations where people are living outside.” The charge of the task force, Clark says, “made lot of sense in the weeks before, but then we were like, ‘Which protocols are we supposed to be looking at? The ones in this legislation, or existing protocols?'”

Once the charge of the task force changed, Clark says, the question became, “do you want to spend five meetings looking at protocols that the council may change five days after you’ve stopped meeting, or do you want to spend your time arriving at these principles that you hope the council will use when looking at these protocols?” They went with the principles.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, who sat on the task force, says the group “definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.

“That said,” Malone continues, “I think the task force achieved something that may have some utility for the city, which is that it got pretty clear agreement across a spectrum of people as to these principles that I do believe go beyond what the city would consider to be its curet principles on these matters.” In Malone’s view, getting a group that included both members of the Magnolia-based Neighborhood Safety Alliance and the King County Coalition on Homelessness to agree on shared assumptions was a feat in itself. (Clark and other task force members I spoke with agreed with this assessment.)

Another reason the task force never got around to drafting its own protocols for encampment sweeps is that they spent so much time during their three-hour meetings getting members up to speed on the basics (“there was a lack of common understanding,” Clark says) and letting members reiterate their personal views on the impacts and causes of homelessness. (The NSA representative, Gretchen Taylor, was particularly fond of asking rhetorical questions about why the task force had been convened at all, given that camping is illegal.)

“[The task force] definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.” -DESC director Daniel Malone

The result was that the task force meetings felt at times like group therapy, and the “guiding principles” reflect it: They include broad statements such as “action must be taken to enhance and reform the effectiveness of our human services system,” and “do no more harm,” as well as almost meaninglessly inclusive statements such as “We recognize that the city’s current approach to managing and removing encampments has negatively impacted homeless individuals and neighborhoods and that new approaches are needed to make sure that our actions match our community values.”

The outcome is far from a win for the mayor, who certainly saw the ACLU legislation coming but may have not anticipated that the council would so eagerly embrace it; instead of undercutting the council with his own, more restrictive encampment bill, Murray is left, at best, with the option of claiming collaboration with the council after they “integrate” the principles of his task force into the ACLU legislation. Even Murray’s promise of $2.8 million to implement the task force’s recommendations falls somewhat flat; since no one knows exactly how the other $12 million Murray’s budget dedicates to programs addressing homelessness will be allocated, the committee couldn’t reach agreement on how to allocate the $2.8 million, particularly in the 20 minutes they had to discuss the matter at the very end of their final meeting Tuesday.

 

The council’s human services committee, meanwhile, has continued to move forward with the ACLU legislation, introducing several amendments Wednesday in response to neighborhood concerns. Specifically, commenters at last week’s meeting, along with residents who have flooded council members’ inboxes with mass emails opposing the legislation, have argued that bill as originally written would allow encampments in schools, playfields, sidewalks, and recreational areas in parks around the city. Although the bill’s sponsors and supporters said such locations would obviously be considered “unsuitable” for encampments, an amended version introduced today tightens up those restrictions, declaring schools, “improved areas” of public parks, and sidewalks in front of residences or commercial areas, as “per se unsuitable” for encampments. “A common question that I’m getting is, ‘Are we going to allow people to camp in parks or play fields where my kids are playing?'” District 4 council member Rob Johnson said. “The answer to those questions is very clearly, ‘no’.”

The new version of the bill also clarifies that the legislation only applies to city-owned property (public schools, Port of Seattle property, and other public property not owned by the city would not have to comply with the rules), removes RV and car campers from the legislation, and sets a two-year sunset date.

Although most of the council seemed pleased with the changes, at-large council member Tim Burgess, whose comments opposing the original bill sparked applause in council chambers a week ago, continued to argue that it was a waste of “energy, time, and resources,” and suggested that the council should instead work on implementing the “creatively disrupting” recommendations in a recent report that said the city could provide shelter for every homeless person within a year by simply allocating resources more efficiently. (Burgess and conspiracy-minded neighborhood activists alike are fond of the report’s somewhat simplistic, and poorly understood, conclusions.)

Burgess, along with District 2 council member Bruce Harrell, raised the specter of neighborhood micromanagement by demanding to know whether specific parts of specific parks—the grassy areas around Green Lake and the woods adjacent to proposed mountain bike trails in Cheasty Greenspace, respectively—would be considered “suitable” for camping. O’Brien countered that if the city opens up the definition of a “suitable” location to every individual neighborhood,  “I think most folks will say, ‘I don’t think right next to me is OK,’ and pretty soon we get to a place where every single place in the city is unsuitable.”

Bagshaw said she expects to spend the next week in “continued negotiations” with Murray’s office over the details of the legislation, but added that time is running short. “We want to get the decision we make here into the budget for 2017 [and] make sure there’s enough money to focus on outreach and services,” Bagshaw said. “If we miss this window, it could [be] a long time before we’re able to collectively talk about it [again.] The full council could vote on the legislation as soon as October 10.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.