Tag: homelessness

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.”

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.

As Seattle Reopens, the City Faces Tough Questions About Its Response to Homelessness

The crisis of homelessness, which exists alongside and intersects with the issue of police violence and the tendency by government to insert cops into situations where their presence exacerbates tensions or just isn’t needed, has fallen below the fold over the past few weeks, but the crisis continues.

Last week, the county and city held the second monthly meeting of the new county-run regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to take over the duties of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division by the end of the year. Although they mostly just discussed the process for selecting a firm to come up with a list of candidates for “CEO” of the authority (“CEO” being the universal new term for public servants employed by the government, apparently), there were tensions over whether the input of the “lived experience” members of the authority’s governing board—all of them people of color—was being taken seriously.

Here’s a roundup of some other homelessness-related news that has slipped below the radar in the past few weeks.

• The city’s Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed. This dramatic discrepancy was first reported by writer Guy Oron on Twitter. In April, I requested the same information Oron received through his press release; the city notified me that the records were available last week, but has not yet produced them, despite the fact that I paid for them three days ago and have followed up with two emails without any response.

HSD did not respond by press time to questions, sent early Monday, about the difference between the numbers the city gave me back in March and the actual number of “obstruction” removals. When official numbers have proved to be inaccurate in the past, the department has generally responded by saying that their early numbers were “preliminary” and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed

It’s important to note that there would be no discrepancy between the numbers HSD initially pushed out and the actual numbers if HSD hadn’t chosen to push out the narrative that they had slowed down encampment removals in response to the pandemic in the first place. By claiming that the Navigation Team had only removed 15 encampments in March, HSD was trying to promote the narrative that they had dramatically reduced the number of sweeps they conducted in the early weeks of the pandemic before suspending them completely on March 17. As the agency put it on March 17: “Since the beginning of March and in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Navigation Team has primarily focused on conducting outreach. … Since March 2, there have been limited Navigation Team removals.”

Even accepting that the original number of 15 was preliminary, the actual number of removals was not “limited” in comparison with the Navigation Team’s track record during previous months. Extrapolated out to cover the month of March, 60 removals between March 2 and March 15 represents a higher rate of removals than what the Navigation Team reported in its most recent quarterly report—120 per month, versus just 101 per month in the last three months of last year. (For obstruction and hazard removals only, March was on track for 114 removals against an actual average of 97.) In other words, not only did the Navigation Team not slow down encampment sweeps in early March, it appears to have accelerated them.

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has shifted to doing “obstruction” removals almost exclusively; these do not require advance notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services.

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Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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

• Another narrative that both HSD and the mayor’s office have pushed is that the Navigation Team has had an extraordinarily high shelter “enrollment” rate since the COVID-19 epidemic began. According to several separate posts on HSD’s website, “Preliminary data shows approximately 70% of all referrals the Navigation Team has made citywide since mid-April arrived and enrolled at these new shelter resources.”

This success rate, which deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller also touted during a tense city council meeting about legislation that would have reined in the Navigation Team’s powers, is the inverse of the team’s usual enrollment rate, which is less than 30 percent. This rate only reflects the percentage of people who “accept” offers of shelter and then follow through; those who aren’t interested are not counted in these percentages.

HSD acknowledges that the high enrollment rate is related to the fact that people living at the Commons encampment were offered guaranteed spots in highly desirable new enhanced shelter beds or spots in tiny house villages reserved specifically for the Navigation Team. The city has created fewer than 100 new shelter beds during the COVID crisis, and those are now full. When I asked HSD what the “preliminary data” have to say about the shelter enrollment rate from sweeps that took place after the city announced its 70 percent success rate, a spokesman said HSD couldn’t provide preliminary data for those removals because people at those encampments were referred to available shelter beds all over than town, rather than funneled into brand-new beds created for that purpose, making them harder to track in real time.

Fair enough. Or it would be, if HSD and the mayor’s office hadn’t repeatedly brought up the 70 percent rate specifically as evidence that the Navigation Team works and should not have its power to sweep encampments during the pandemic restricted by law in any way.

The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration

• One reason you’re reading about referrals to shelter, rather than temporary housing such as rooms in hotels, is that the city has been extremely reluctant to provide hotel vouchers for people living in encampments—to the point that dozens of hotel rooms are currently paid for but sitting empty because the city has repeatedly declined to approve people living in tents during the pandemic for the program.

Asked why the city has continued to put people into mass shelters, where COVID is more likely to spread, instead of hotels as King County has done, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office responded, “Through the City’s contracts, 318 unique individuals have been supported at various hotels, including the Red Lion in Renton. The initial costs are estimated to be $764,670 and are ongoing. These individuals were formerly staying at programs operated by DESC and Catholic Community Services.” I reported on the county’s efforts to move shelter residents into these hotels last month.

• The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration, both the Salvation Army and the VA have confirmed. The relocation, according to a VA spokesperson, was possible through a CARES Act provision that allows agencies like the Salvation Army to ask for a higher per diem for certain veteran clients, which has provided enough funding to put them in a hotel instead of bunk beds. Salvation Army spokeswoman Lora Marini Baker says the move is temporary, but there is no current end date for the arrangement.

• Finally, check this space for an update on the future of shelters in Seattle. During the pandemic, cities and states across the country turned to hotel rooms as a safer alternative to congregate shelter, giving people experiencing homelessness a rare opportunity to experience privacy, security, and an actual bed, and to escape the hectic chaos of a typical shelter. As cities open back up, they face a choice: Whether to reopen mass shelters, which are often traumatizing and dehumanizing, or find a way to provide some of the dignity and privacy of hotels to people without permanent homes.

In Seattle, where the city is already beginning to add people to shelters that were “de-intensified” to reduce COVID transmission, the city seems poised to return to the previous system, with the possible exception of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown shelter. I’ll be reporting more on this subject soon, so stay tuned.

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?

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”

Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps

Bundling up items to drag outside the police barricades during an encampment removal on South Weller Street last week.

More than six weeks after the Seattle-based Public Defender Association launched its Co-LEAD program in Burien, the diversion program has come home to Seattle and began serving five homeless clients last week. Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, case management, and other basic supports to people experiencing homelessness who have been in the criminal justice system and lack legal options for making money during the COVID-19 pandemic. After launching the program in Burien in April, the PDA had hoped to enroll some of the people who were dispersed throughout the city during several recent encampment sweeps, but were unable to do so because the city moved ahead with the removals before Co-LEAD case workers could identify and enroll new participants.

Since announcing the “suspension” of encampment removals except in the most “extreme” circumstances, Mayor Jenny Durkan has overseen three major encampment sweeps, removing dozens of tents from three locations in Ballard and the International District. The latest two removals were last week.

The city says it did weeks of prior outreach at every encampment it has removed during the pandemic, a claim that some people living in the encampments contradicted. On its blog and in a series of bellicose Twitter posts, HSD said that 63 people were referred to shelter during two encampment removals last week, and claimed that “some campers admitted” to showing up from somewhere else on the morning of the sweep just to get shelter referrals. HSD has not responded to questions about how many of those people actually showed up at shelter, how many people simply dispersed before the morning of each sweep, and how many people who showed up at shelter are still indoors.

“Programs such as Co-Lead should be provided two weeks to offer motels to the homeless at South King; consequently, we are willing to allow the South King encampment removal to be delayed until Sunday, May 31st.” —Letter from Interim CDA, Chinese Information and Service Center, Friends of Little Saigon, SCIDPDA, CIDBIA, The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, APICAT, Kin On, and Helping Link/Mot Dau Noi to Mayor Jenny Durkan before two encampment removals in the Chinatown International District last week

Despite calls from advocates and the city council to move people living outdoors into individual rooms, as the CDC recommends, the Durkan Administration has continued moving people into mass shelters and tiny house villages, saying that people are more at risk living outdoors than they are living in congregate settings. (Generally speaking, the CDC disagrees.) People living at the Ballard Commons were removed on May 4; the camps on South King and South Weller Streets, in the International District, followed on May 20 and May 21, respectively.

Twice in a row, Co-LEAD has hoped to move at least some displaced encampment residents into blocks of hotel rooms it has reserved around the Seattle area, but has been unsuccessful.

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

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

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In Ballard, the PDA was unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was swept.

In the International District, where LEAD again offered to enroll people in Co-LEAD and move them to hotels, the program actually had the support of neighbors who wanted the two encampments gone. In a letter to Durkan, nine organizations in the Chinatown International District, including Interim Community Development Association, asked the mayor to “bring all possible resources to bear to serve the needs of the people living unhoused on South King and South Weller, preferably sheltering these individuals in permanent or transitional housing, which includes motel/hotel/quarantine sites” before doing the sweeps.

Continue reading “Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps”

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.