Tag: homelessness

Alarm Over Potential Navigation Team Cuts Leaves Out One Crucial Detail


Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent council members a letter today outlining potential devastating consequences if the city council eliminates or reduces the size of the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and city staffers who remove unauthorized encampments. The letter, signed by the heads of seven executive departments that report to Durkan (plus the director of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health), suggests that between 95 and 476 fewer people will receive referrals to shelter next year if the council reduces funding for the Navigation Team.

“The Navigation Team’s trained police officers, Field Coordinators and System Navigators engage people experiencing homelessness in some of Seattle’s most dangerous and inaccessible locations, establishing the rapport and trust needed to provide critical services,” the memo says.

But the biggest issue with the warning in the mayor’s memo is that no one, except embattled city council member Kshama Sawant, is seeking to “eliminate” the Navigation Team. In fact—alarmist headlines about “draconian budget cuts” aside—no one but Sawant has proposed cutting the program at all, and not one council member has expressed support for Sawant’s idea.

There are a few issues with this analysis. The first is that referrals to shelter matter less than how many people actually end up going to shelter. According to the city’s own numbers (first reported by The C Is for Crank), fewer than a third of all shelter referrals result in a person actually accessing a shelter bed, so the actual number of people who might not access shelter through the Navigation Team is more like 28 to 143 people a year.

The second issue is that the Navigation Team, by the city’s own admission, now focuses primarily on removing encampments it considers “obstructions,” an expansive term that can apply to any tent set up in a park or public right-of-way. According to outreach workers, these zero-notice removals do not establish “rapport” or “trust”; quite the opposite. That’s why the city’s nonprofit outreach provider, REACH, stopped participating in “obstruction” removals earlier this year.

But the biggest issue with the alarming memo is that no one, except embattled city council member Kshama Sawant, is seeking to “eliminate” the Navigation Team. In fact—alarmist headlines about “draconian budget cuts” aside—no one but Sawant has proposed cutting the program at all, and not one council member has expressed support for Sawant’s idea. The only other proposed restriction on the Navigation Team is the renewal of an existing budget proviso that requires the team to produce data on its progress, which isn’t the same thing as a cut. And at least one council member—Debora Juarez—actually wants to make the Navigation Team even bigger.

“I have ongoing concerns about pretending that the Navigation Team is actually connecting people to services and shelter when the numbers, in terms of performance, [are] dismal. If the Navigation Team was a service provider, their contract would have been canceled at this point.” — City Council member Lorena Gonzalez

The real targets for the executive department’s memo may have been council members like Sally Bagshaw, who remarked that she had never seen such consensus among city departments, and the local media, who ran with Durkan’s story line without mentioning that Sawant’s proposal has approximately a zero percent chance of passing. (Bagshaw’s comment about departmental unity led her colleague Lorena Gonzalez to quip, “I don’t disagree that there is consensus amongst the executive.”)

That isn’t to say that council members didn’t have critical things to say about the Navigation Team, which has ballooned in size during the Durkan Administration, from 22 members in 2017 to 38 this year. (After the team’s nonprofit outreach partner, REACH, stopped participating in no-notice “obstruction” removals this summer, Durkan added four more members to the team, funding two of them with one-time funds; her budget proposal, much like last year’s, seeks to make those positions permanent).

Gonzalez suggested that, given the team’s extremely low ratio of “contacts” to shelter acceptance (just 8 percent of those the team contacts end up in shelter), the city should stop pretending it is “navigating” anyone to anywhere and just start calling it a “cleanup” operation.

“I have ongoing concerns about pretending that the Navigation Team is actually connecting people to services and shelter when the numbers, in terms of performance, [are] dismal,” Gonzalez said. “If the Navigation Team was a service provider, their contract would have been canceled at this point.”

Bagshaw countered that the Navigation Team does more than “cleanups”; they also offer services and help combat what she called “a sense of less than safety in a neighborhood. … We’ve got to put our arms around the people in the neighborhoods as well,” she said.

Herbold’s proposed proviso would require the council to approve the Navigation Team’s funding every quarter based on whether it was making progress on responding to a set of recommendations the city auditor made back in 2018, many of which Herbold said the mayor’s office and HSD have “indicated that they have no intention of addressing.” One of those recommendations has to do with the Navigation Team’s staffing model and whether the current structure of the team makes sense. “We have not asked them to change the staffing model; we have asked them to do a staffing assessment. And the reason for that is that the staffing configuration might have an impact on the Navigation Team’s ability to meet our shared objectives,” Herbold said.

Juarez’s proposed budget add, in contrast, would expand the Navigation Team by two more members to serve north Seattle, which Juarez said has seen “a lot more unsanctioned encampments… that are just being ignored.” Gonzalez questioned Juarez’s proposal, asking why the existing Navigation Team couldn’t be deployed to serve the north end if that’s where the need is, and Herbold warned against making decisions about where to deploy the team based on complaints or anecdotes rather than data. “I am concerned that if we look at a geographic focus, that is going to really turn this whole body of work into one that is driven by what locations are getting the most complaints rather than what locations are creating the largest actual, objective problems,” she said.

Continue reading “Alarm Over Potential Navigation Team Cuts Leaves Out One Crucial Detail”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: Dan Strauss

 

 

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This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: Dan Strauss, a legislative aide to retiring District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw and nearly lifelong Ballard resident who is running to replacing District 6 representative Mike O’Brien, who’s leaving the council after 10 years. We sat down at Ballard Coffee Works on NW Market Street, which becomes pertinent a couple of times during this interview.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): When you’re knocking on doors, how do you respond to complaints that the city isn’t doing enough to address visible homelessness in District 6, particularly in Ballard?

Dan Strauss (DS): I talk to them about the need to be able to provide everyone who is experiencing homelessness the opportunity to come inside four walls with a door that they can lock, that’s connected to the services that they need. I mean, that’s the baseline of what we need to be doing. And it’s a travesty that we aren’t providing enough enhanced shelters or places for people to be able to keep their things during the middle of the day, that folks are pushed out of their overnight shelters very early in the morning and haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep, and so now they’re sleeping during the day. That’s what we need to be focusing on. And that’s how I direct their commentary.

When I was growing up, there was a single resident occupancy hotel [in Ballard], which burned down in 2000. That was a place where people would be able to have four walls and a door that they could lock if rent was short that month, or if they were off of a fishing boat for a minute, or something like that. And so I think that’s something that is sometimes lost when we’re talking about what’s going on in Ballard—there have always been people experiencing homelessness in our community.

“In my perfect world, we would be bonding against our existing tax streams, using our total bonding capacity to build the housing we need today.”

ECB: You’ve also mentioned that you supported safe consumption sites. It’s been more than three years since the King County Opiate Task Force recommended opening two safe consumption sites in the county, and obviously it hasn’t happened. Are you just stating your values, or are you planning to actively push for safe consumption if you’re elected?

DS: There’s not a legal pathway given the federal government’s current position. So these are values I hold, because I know that harm reduction models work. This is the most extreme harm reduction model available, and there’s other ways that we can reduce harm in our communities. We know that there are drug addiction is a medical disease and it can be treated with medical interventions.

ECB: You said at a recent forum that you don’t support sweeping homeless people from place to place. What would you do with the Navigation Team, and is there more nuance that you weren’t able to express in that yes/no question?

DS: The nuance with that is that the Navigation Team, in its essence, is supposed to navigate people to services and to a safe, warm, dry place to live. And the problem is that we don’t have enough of those resources, right? So if we did have enough places with four walls and a door that someone can lock, that has the services on site, the Navigation Team would be effective.

ECB: In the absence of that, what would you propose to address people’s short-term needs?

DS: In the short term, we need to treat this like the emergency that it is. The fact that it’s taking three to five years for the modular houses from King County to come online—that’s not satisfactory. We know what the solutions are and that we need to get going, and we need to put this at the front of the queue.

All [the Office of Police Accountability] does is file complaints and grievances. We should also be giving commendations and saying, ‘You did a good job.’

ECB: You’ve mentioned finding efficiencies in the system as one way to save money and be able to invest more in things like housing and shelter. Do you think that there needs to be a new revenue source as well?

DS: I mean, at this point, especially for the capital side of things, there’s no way around that. The ride share tax that [Mayor Jenny Durkan just proposed]—that’s another revenue source. I would love to see the state do more. I’d love to see the county do more. I’d love to work with my colleagues to develop good proposals that aren’t putting the burden on property or sales tax. What I would love to see is us fully use our bonding capacity. In my perfect world, we would be bonding against our existing tax streams, using our total bonding capacity to build the housing we need today.  We’re in an emergency—we’re just straight-up in an emergency. If there is any untapped [bonding] capacity, that needs to be used.

ECB: What do you think of how the mayor has proposed allocating the revenues from the ride share tax, splitting it between housing and the streetcar?

DS: I think we’re at the point where we’re going to need to connect the streetcars or rip them up. It’s just such an example how Seattle does things halfway. And we’ve had such a long history of doing things halfway. And that’s one of the reasons that I decided to run. I’m tired of seeing it done that way. We need to have Yesler Terrace connected to South Lake Union and South Lake Union connected to the International District. The frustrations that I have with the streetcar is it needs to have dedicated lanes, and we need to have a connected system. It’s also frustrating that this was a premier mode of transportation when it was first proposed and we never got behind it and now we’re behind the times.

I don’t think that the housing dollars should expire in five years. And I would love to see a way that we could get those funds to be bondable. Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: Dan Strauss”

Most Navigation Team Referrals Don’t Lead to Shelter, Previously Unreleased City Data Shows

Overall, just 30 percent of Navigation Team referrals to shelter in the first half of 2019 resulted in a person actually accessing shelter. Referrals represent only about a quarter of the total number of people “engaged” by the Navigation Team. Overall, only about 8 percent of Navigation Team “engagements” this year resulted in shelter—a number the city says is a reflection of the fact that they are now recording every contact, however brief, in their new NavApp system.

The director of Seattle’s Human Services Department told the city council last week that he was unable to provide data that would back up his assertion that the Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces, is successfully connecting people to shelter, saying there was still a lot of work to do before a “dashboard” including this data could be made available.

In fact, the dashboard is already live, and it shows that the vast majority of people who receive “referrals” to shelter—70 percent in the first half of 2019—never actually show up at those shelters. And those referrals only reflect a fraction of the total number of individuals “engaged” by the Navigation Team as it removes encampments. If all those individuals are included, only about 8 percent of people the Navigation Team contacts when they’re removing encampments—128 out of 1,583—actually end up in shelter.

According to council member Lisa Herbold(who, along with her colleague Teresa Mosqueda, has been asking HSD to provide the number of shelter enrollments, as opposed to referrals, for months), the the city requires nonprofit homeless service providers to meet a much higher standard than the Navigation Team—60 percent of their referrals are supposed to result in actual shelter enrollments, or twice as many shelter enrollments as the Navigation Team’s current average. And the nonprofit providers are hitting that higher number—according to data provided by the mayor’s office, nonprofit providers funded by the city made a total of 246 referrals and 147 enrollments in the first half of this year, an enrollment rate of 60 percent.

“My focus [in asking the Navigation Team for its results] has been ensuring that the Navigation Team is having success in our shared understanding of what the outcomes should be and accountability in meeting those outcomes,” Herbold says. “So I ask myself, Why are the referrals to shelter so much lower than what we expect of the outreach providers, and what could make them better?”

I started calling the mayor’s office and HSD about the website, which had not been publicly disclosed to council members who were requesting it, on Friday. HSD sent out a memo to council members providing a link to the site, which has apparently been live for weeks, late this afternoon, shortly after I talked to them and three days after I asked them directly about the website.

“We’re happy with the fact that we’re seeing conversions of [shelter] referrals to enrollments increasing, and the information pushes us to continue to try to do better.”—Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

In the memo, HSD interim director Jason Johnson draws a distinction between “contacts” made by the Nav Team and “referrals to shelters, which is the result of relationship building, time, conversations, and matching an individual (or sometimes groups of individuals) to a unique shelter resources.” In other words, Johnson is saying that the 8 percent number isn’t as bad as it looks, because the Navigation Team has to make a record of every single “contact” with people they encounter in encampments, effectively diluting the number of successes. In contrast, HSD says, nonprofit outreach providers aren’t required to (and don’t) track every single contact—so their numbers look better.

The city has acknowledged that the Navigation Team is now dedicated primarily to removing tents and people from public spaces, rather than providing referrals to shelter or services. But the new numbers confirm that even when the Navigation Team does make what it considers  a successful “referral,” most unsheltered people never actually access the shelter they’re referred to.

Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief homelessness advisor, says the mayor’s office is “happy with the fact that we’re seeing conversions of [shelter] referrals to enrollments increasing, and the information pushes us to continue to try to do better. We want to continue to see that upward trend moving forward.”

The new numbers confirm that even when the Navigation Team does make what it considers  a successful “referral,” most unsheltered people never actually access the shelter they’re referred to.

Homeless advocates say that the Navigation Team, which is made up primarily of police officers, works under protocols (such as a mandate to remove many encampments with no prior notice) that makes it impossible to build relationships or engage in meaningful outreach to unsheltered people. “The Navigation Team is more and more evidently about policing than about providing needed and effective service interventions to human beings, and that is really concerning,” says Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “A good referral is a referral that results in someone being able to accept it.”

Herbold added a proviso to last year’s budget requiring the Navigation Team to provide quarterly reports on various issues, including a staffing assessment to determine whether the Navigation Team has the proper mix of police officers and outreach workers. That assessment was never done. “In essence, they just said they weren’t going to do it,” she says.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit that used to outreach during encampment removals, REACH, stopped participating in most “cleans” after the Navigation Team shifted its focus to removing encampments deemed to be “obstructions,” a designation that exempts the team from the usual requirements to provide outreach and prior notice to residents. However, REACH is still technically part of the Navigation Team, and the referrals they make as part of their ongoing Navigation Team-related outreach work gets counted toward the Navigation Team’s successful shelter referrals.

Currently, the Navigation Team does not transfer most clients to shelter directly; when they do, it’s in the back of a police car,  because system navigators are not authorized to give rides to shelter residents in their own vehicles—another potential barrier to converting a shelter referral into an actual shelter stay.

REACH director Chloe Gale says the Navigation Team’s low rate of actual shelter enrollments, as opposed to referrals, “really indicates that it takes more than just a referral to move somebody into shelter. You have to make sure that it’s a good fit, that they’re eligible for the shelter, that they really want to go and don’t just feel pressure to go and that they provide basic assistance such as help with transportation.” Currently, the Navigation Team does not transfer most clients to shelter directly; when they do, it’s in the back of a police car,  because system navigators are not authorized to give rides to shelter residents in their own vehicles—another potential barrier to converting a shelter referral into an actual shelter stay.

Eisinger says that because the Navigation Team only counts people who happen to stick around on the day of an encampment removal in their list of official “contacts,” even the 8 percent shelter rate, which the city says is the result of carefully tracking even the briefest engagements, may be high.

“What I have observed, what others have observed, and what I think continues to be the story is that the Navigation Team shows up and some people simply leave. They do not expect to offered anything that is actually useful to them,” Eisinger says. “And so there is some question about the number of engagements compared to the number of people actually living in public spaces.”

The mayor’s office is requesting a total of $8.4 million for the Navigation Team, which includes $362,000 for new positions that were paid for in 2019 with one-time funding from unspent revenues. (This is the second budget in a row in which Durkan has funded Navigation Team expansions with one-time funding and asked the city council to backfill those positions with general-fund dollars in the next year’s budget.)

The Navigation Team will be one of the only major homelessness-related efforts to stay at the city when King County and Seattle merge their homelessness agencies into a single regional body. Herbold says she’ll be asking pointed questions about the Navigation Team’s results and composition during the upcoming budget discussion.

The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 3 Challenger Egan Orion

Image via Egan Orion campaign

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

First up: My interview with Egan Orion, running against Sawant in a race that’s shaping up to be the most expensive City Council contest in Seattle’s history. Orion has been a retail worker, a barista, a tour guide, and a data analyst. He’s also worked as a web designer, a Microsoft engineer, and an event producer—and, for a brief time, the head of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, which shut down after Orion left (after two months on the job) to run for council. We started out by talking about his departure from the Chamber.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Why did you decide to leave the Capitol Hill Chamber to run for council? They shut down right after you left, and it seemed like the two events were related.

Egan Orion (EO): They had been working on the expanded [business improvement area] effort across Capitol Hill for about five years. And they had spent so much time and energy on that—to the neglect, in my mind, of some of the basics of expanding a local chamber—and it was clear that they needed more leadership. And they didn’t have an executive director at the time, just an admin who was very good at keeping things going. So I helped them write the Only In Seattle grant to get funding for 2019, and helped them plan the State of the Hill event on February 1, and then we started talking about, what would it look like if I came on board as a part time ED? So I gave the State of the Hill address on my first day working for them, and it wasn’t a week or ten days later that the admin who had been with the organization for so long decided abruptly that she was going to start to make her exit. And there wasn’t enough time for that transition. And that’s when the snowstorms happened as well.

I was doing the best that I could with what I knew about the organization. And then, two weeks into my tenure at capital chamber, Beto [Yarce] dropped out of the city council race. And I just started to think about it. I was really just praying that someone would step up that could defeat Kshama. And as the weeks passed, I just kept on waiting and not seeing anyone. And I started to think maybe this was a better way for me to advocate for my community. So I made that decision, and the chamber decided that they didn’t have the capacity to hire someone.

ECB: You’ve been the biggest beneficiary of spending by outside groups like People for Seattle and the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the Chamber of Commerce PAC. Do you have any misgivings about the fact that the business lobby and Tim Burgess’ PAC have decided to invest so heavily in getting you elected?

EO: Oh, sure. I’ve got misgivings about it. I would prefer to run a race where we didn’t have to worry about money coming from outside the city, from powerful forces from within the city—where we as candidates had to connect with voters in our district. Districts are fairly small in the scheme of things. They’re very walkable. I know because I’ve walked all those precincts at one point or another connecting with voters. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why people responded to my campaign, is that me and my campaign manager and our volunteers knocked on 16,500 doors for the primary alone, and we’re going to surpass that in the general. We’ve been running a very local race and talking about the issues that matter, not just to a narrow set of constituents, like Kshama Sawant, but to all the communities in the district.

I look at this as a quality of life election. And the quality of life for someone that lives in Portage Bay or Madrona is just as important to me as the quality of life for people on Capitol Hill.

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ECB: So is there any position where you would say you dramatically differ from CASE?

EO: I didn’t realize CASE had political positions. What they laid out for us [during endorsement discussions] was some basic stuff around transportation, safety and prosperity. And of course, I had a small business background and also represented a couple of different nonprofits that represent small business. I really had an obvious resume that they would respond to, because they have 2,000 small businesses that are part of their chamber.

So I don’t really pay attention to the political desires of CASE beyond those general values that, that I share with them. I don’t mean to be coy about that either. I really don’t look at the positions of what CASE wants. Businesses are as varied as voters in their views.

ECB: Mayor Durkan has continued expanding the Navigation Team, which has shifted its focus to removing encampments without providing 72 hours’ notice or offers of shelter and services. Do you support this approach?

EO: In general, no. I think that that when REACH was really embedded with the Navigation Team, they really brought that human services touch to that work. I mean, at the end of the day, if we’re sweeping people from a public place where they’re camping and we’re not providing any place for them to go,  I see that as inhumane and a waste of money, because they’re just going to pop up somewhere else and then we’re just going to spend the money to sweep them somewhere else. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 3 Challenger Egan Orion”

Questions Raised about Accountability and Goals of New Regional Homelessness Authority

King County Council members and officials from suburban cities raised new concerns yesterday about a proposal to merge the city of Seattle and King County’s homelessness programs into a single agency during Wednesday’s meeting of the county Regional Policy Committee, which county council members as well as representatives from Seattle and several suburban cities. In addition to questions about whether the new body will be too “Seattle-centric,” officials pressed county staffers on two key points: Will this new agency make real strides toward addressing “root causes” and actually solving homelessness? And will its governing board be accountable to … well, anyone?

The first question was posed most pointedly by King County Council chair Rod Dembowski, who is on the fence about whether to support the restructure. Looking back to the five “root causes” of homelessness that were identified at the end of the lengthy One Table process, Dembowski asked county Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor if it was accurate to say that the regional consolidation “Will not play in a meaningful way to addressing those root causes; rather it is narrowly tailored to the crisis response to folks living unsheltered.” Flor responded, “You are exactly correct,” adding that if programs addressing root causes can be thought of as branches of primary care, “what we are describing and proposing is a more efficient and consolidated emergency room.”

“What improvement in people’s lives would you expect to see if we did what the executive and mayor were asking us to do?” Dembowski pressed.

“Consistent improvement on a problem that’s been hard to improve consistently,” Flor responded.

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The other issue was about governance—specifically, the structure of the two boards that will sit atop the new regional authority like tiers of a layer cake. The smaller of two boards would be a steering committee made up of up to six elected officials and two people who have experienced homelessness, whose duties would be limited to confirming members of the governing board that would actually be in charge of the agency; approving that board’s five-year plan and budget without amendment; and confirming or removing governing board members, all by a majority of a plurality vote. (In other words, if four or five members showed up to a meeting, three members would constitute a majority of those present). Continue reading “Questions Raised about Accountability and Goals of New Regional Homelessness Authority”

One-Way Tickets Out of Town, Tiny House Villages’ Future In Question, and a Poll Asks, Hey, Did You Know Sawant Is a Socialist?

1. Reagan Dunn, a Republican King County Council member who has been vocal in his opposition to a proposal to merge Seattle and King County’s homelessness agencies, told me last week that one of his concerns about the plan was that it would be responsible for implementing the same policies he believes have failed at reducing homelessness, including lenient “Seattle-centric” policies like the (basically moribund) plan to open a safe drug consumption site in King County and county prosecutor Dan Satterburg’s decision not to prosecute people for simple drug possession. On Tuesday, he proposed a few policies he thinks will work better.

The first proposal would allocate at least a million dollars a year for bus tickets to send homeless people to “reunite” with family members out of town—as long as those family members don’t live in King or any adjacent county. These “Homeward Bound” programs have had mixed success, both at getting homeless people to go somewhere else and actually reuniting people with their families; according to a 2017 Guardian investigation, there’s often little tracking of what happens to homeless people once they’re sent away, and little way of knowing if they’ve been reunited with loved ones or simply become some other city’s problem. “Seattle has nothing like [Homeward Bound] and we’ve become a dead-end street,” Dunn says. “Sometimes you have to have a tough-love solution.”

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Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Surveys of people experiencing homelessness in King County consistently show that the overwhelming majority—84 percent of those surveyed as part of the 2019 point-in-time count—lived (in housing) in King County before becoming homeless.

Dunn’s other two proposals would set up a county team to do outreach to homeless people in Metro bus shelters and on buses (two of the principle places people without homes go to get dry and warm), and a plan to notify opiate prescribers when a patient dies of an opiate-related overdose.

Dunn says he thinks the proposed new regional body, which would be governed by a board of “experts” that would not include any elected officials, would be “unaccountable to the public” and could siphon funding away from King County’s other cities to Seattle. He may not be alone. County Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski, both Democrats, are reportedly on the fence, and Bellevue Democrat Claudie Balducci expressed some misgivings last week. The county’s regional policy committee, which includes members from many of the cities that were not included in the plan, meets to discuss the proposal this afternoon.

The language is so similar to the verbiage on People For Seattle’s vitriolic, often highly misleading primary election direct mail pieces (particularly that “back to basics,” anti-“ideology” stuff) that I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is their poll.

2. A lawsuit by the group Safe Seattle that sought to shut down a “tiny house village” in South Lake Union was rejected just as the city announced plans to extend the permits for the three officially temporary villages—in Othello, Georgetown, and West Seattle—for six more months. But the future of these “tiny house” encampments is still in question.

The three villages originally supposed to move after two years, but their permits have been extended twice, and it’s unclear whether the Human Services Department has a long-term plan for what to do with them after the extensions are up. (When I asked HSD about the future of the villages, a spokeswoman initially said they would have something to announce “soon,” then pointed me to the agency’s blog post about the six-month extension.) Continue reading “One-Way Tickets Out of Town, Tiny House Villages’ Future In Question, and a Poll Asks, Hey, Did You Know Sawant Is a Socialist?”

More City Hall Churn, Council Staffers Organize, Farewell to a “Feisty” Neighborhood Activist, and More

Seattle City Hall

Image via OZinOH on Flickr.

In keeping with how quickly news piles up the moment after Labor Day ends, here are a few quick-hit items—in two parts!—from City Hall and beyond.

Round 1, City Hall edition:

1. This week, the city’s Human Services Department posted an announcement for a new deputy director overseeing homelessness, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding confirmed. The position is separate from the job of homelessness division director, a job filled by Diana Salazar last month after the former director, Tiffany Washington, left for a job in the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning. Asked why HSD needed to hire two new high-level employees to oversee homelessness at a time when the city plans to hand most of its homelessness programs over to a new regional agency, Olberding said that the city will continue to oversee homelessness until at least 2021 and that the position would be temporary.

2. Barb Graff, the longtime director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, is retiring at the beginning of next year after 15 years in that position. OEM oversees disaster and emergency preparedness for the city, including physical disasters such as earthquakes and declared emergencies like the homelessness crisis, which prompted a nine-month activation of the city’s Emergency Operations Center. The city posted the job publicly yesterday.

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3. The Seattle City Council’s central staff—the policy shop for all nine council members—is trying to unionize. Protec17, which represents other city employees, filed a petition to represent the staffers to the Public Employee Relations Commission this week after central staffers submitted enough signatures to form a bargaining unit. The staffers’ exact grievance is unclear, but it reportedly relates to concerns that their work—providing unbiased and apolitical advice and analysis to all nine council members, regardless of what they want to hear—has been politicized. Central staffers make between about $58 and $64 an hour, putting them among the highest-paid workers at the city.

In response to questions about central staffers’ organizing efforts, council spokeswoman Dana Robinson Slote provided this statement: “Council recognizes employees’ right to seek representation and is aware of the petition to represent Central Staff Legislative analysts in the Council Central Staff division. A Labor Relations negotiator has been assigned the matter.  Out of respect for the process, Council has been advised against making any public statements at this time.”

4. Faye Garneau, the North Seattle businesswoman, Aurora Avenue Merchants Association leader, transit funding opponent, district elections advocate, antagonist to urbanists, and “feisty” neighborhood fixture for many decades, has died. Garneau—a garrulous, strong-willed, and committed advocate to the causes she believed in—was 85.

5. Learn to trust the Crank: As I reported last week, city council member Mike O’Brien is proposing legislation to ban new natural gas hookups as of July 1, 2020. O’Brien plans to discuss the legislation in his Sustainability and Transportation Committee this Friday, September 6.

 

Long-Awaited Details of New Regional Homelessness Authority Announced, Though Many Questions Remain Unanswered

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced some key details about a long-planned regional homelessness authority Wednesday morning, including how much funding the new entity will received from the city and the county, how it will be governed, and which functions of the city’s Human Services Department will be shifting to the new authority and which ones will be staying at the city. The regional authority will effectively consolidate most of the county and city’s homelessness investments into a single agency, and replace existing agencies including All Home and the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, which is part of the Human Services Department.

“We’re not saying this is the solution or a panacea,” Durkan said, “but we know what we’ve done before has not worked. What you see today is everybody joined in one cause, together.” Standing behind Durkan and Constantine were retiring Position 7 city council member Sally Bagshaw, representatives from several suburban cities, King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, human service providers and several formerly homeless individuals.

The new authority will be funded by $73 million in city dollars and $55 million from the county (including a total of $42 million in federal grants to both). Structurally, the agency will be a public development authority governed by an 11-member board consisting of still-unidentified “experts” that will include three people with “lived experience” of homelessness. (The board will be overseen by a separate steering committee that includes the mayor and county executive, along with other local officials). The agency will be charged with issuing and administering all contracts for homelessness services.

For Seattle, the biggest change will be the eventual dissolution of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division, which oversees the city’s existing response to homelessness, including shelters, transitional housing, outreach, and services associated with permanent supportive housing. Both the Navigation Team (which removes homeless encampments from public spaces) and the actual construction of permanent supportive housing will remain with the city’s Human Services Department. The new authority will issue contracts to human services providers directly, work that was previously performed by the separate city and county governments.

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The new authority will not come with any additional funding for homelessness. Both Durkan and Constantine said this morning that a regional organization will create “efficiencies” that will allow the region to use its limited homelessness dollars more effectively, rather than passing a new funding source like the $275 million property tax levy former mayor Ed Murray proposed, then abandoned, in 2017, or the 0.1 percent sales tax increase Constantine and Murray proposed, then abandoned, later that same year. This morning, Constantine said that he was “very optimistic that this new structure will allow us to marshal all of our resources in the region to be more effective in addressing homelessness” even in the absence of more money to solve the problem.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, whose city is not yet a party to the agreement, added, “Hopefully the days of sitting in meetings and at the end of them, saying, ‘How many people did we house during the meeting?’ ha[ve] come to an end. Working together is what’s going to make this happen.”

In 2017, the city held a competitive bidding process for homelessness contracts for the first time in more than a decade, a change city officials touted at the time as a way to hold service providers accountable for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing. Asked whether the new authority would hold contractors to the same set of standards, director Jason Johnson said that the contract between the city and the regional authority “will say, ‘Here’s $70 million, and here’s our expectation with those $70 million. [We’re going to] make sure that the governing board is really clear about … what the expectation will be.”

The city’s homelessness division will be phased out over the next year, starting as early as December, when HSD and county employees (along with All Home, the county’s coordinating agency for homelessness) will move their operations to the county-owned Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, according to internal memos. Once the process of setting up the regional agency is complete, All Home will fold and all city employees “on loan” to the new agency will take permanent jobs at the new authority, find new jobs at the city, or face layoffs. The new regional authority, according to Johnson, will take over the annual Point In Time Count of people experiencing homelessness as well as running the county’s coordinated entry program‚basically the front door to the homelessness system.

In a 2018 survey, employees of the city’s homelessness division reported feeling unappreciated and ill-informed about management decisions. Today, Johnson said he would do his best to “offer as much information as possible to employees” who will be impacted by the changes announced today. The city’s three-part transition plan for existing homelessness division workers shows employees being hired by the regional authority, transferred into other city jobs, or “transitioned” out of the department by April of next year.

The legislation setting up the new regional authority still has to be approved by both the Seattle City Council and King County Council. The latter, of course, includes Republicans and representatives of cities that are not being included in the plan who do not support the idea of a new regional bureaucracy overseeing homelessness. This morning, King County Council member Reagan Dunn issued a statement opposing the plan, saying, “This new layer of government would be undemocratically structured, lack representation of suburban cities, and be yet another expense on taxpayers. The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by pushing Seattle’s failed policies to the surrounding region.”

Dunn’s colleague Kohl-Welles said she hadn’t heard widespread opposition on the council, but added “I don’t know, standing here, that we’ll have unanimity as a council. I think there likely will be amendments as the legislation goes through the deliberative process, [but] I have not heard any other council member come out and say, ‘I am opposed to this.’ It’s more, ‘I’d like to learn more about it. I have some concerns but I don’t know the details yet.'”

 

City Shuts Down Unit Charged with Fixing Contract Compliance Problems Identified in Scathing 2014 Audit

The city’s Human Services Department has quietly dismantled an office that monitors how grants to nonprofit providers are written and spent. According to a June 10, 2019 email from HSD deputy director Audrey Buehring, the office “will be dissolved after March 31, 2020 and will cease full review of contracts for the 2020 Contract Season.”

The office (full name: Leadership and Administration Contracts Unit, or LADCU), was put in charge of contract compliance after a scathing state audit in 2014 concluded that HSD lacked “adequate controls” to monitor how contracts were being written as well as how human service providers were spending grant money. The audit found that the city did not “consistently verify the information it receives” from nonprofit human service providers or keep records adequate to ensure that public dollars were being spent appropriately by providers.

The main problem with HSD’s tracking and compliance system, the audit found, was “the way that the service provider monitoring responsibility is assigned to Department employees,” with the same employees in charge of choosing providers, negotiating contracts, and then “self-monitoring” to make sure the contracts stayed in compliance throughout the year.

The audit found that the city did not “consistently verify the information it receives” from nonprofit human service providers or keep records adequate to ensure that public dollars were being spent appropriately by providers.

After the audit, those duties shifted to the contracts unit, and since then, the unit appears to have lived up to its charge. In the past year alone, LADCU’s four contract reviewers caught dozens of errors in contracts before they went out, including one contract that went through several layers of review before a staffer with the unit caught an error that would have cost the city $2 million, according to an April memo from all six LADCU staffers raising alarms about the change. (The memo was obtained by The C Is for Crank.) LADCU staffers also caught the fact that an HSD staffer had removed mandatory language designed to protect immigrants in multiple contracts, as well as language committing the city to pay “an unlimited sum” for rodent control in several contracts, according to the memo.

The 2014 state audit calling for stricter monitoring of HSD contracts found that in many cases, a single employee was assigned to analyze community needs, pick a provider, negotiate a contract, and ensure that the provider complied with the contract requirements—duties that the auditor called “incompatible.” Under former interim HSD director John Okamoto, the contracts unit began to serve as an extra layer of review by experts whose only job was to ensure that contracts were “accurate, consistent, and compliant” with federal, state, and city requirements, including labor laws passed at the city level.

Once the unit is completely dismantled, starting with next year’s contracting season, their responsibilities will revert to HSD’s various divisions—essentially the same system that led to compliance issues in the first place.

HSD will also create a new “Continuous Quality Improvement” unit to check contracts for compliance after they’ve been signed; but there will no longer be any city staffers exclusively dedicated to ensuring that contracts are compliant with every city, state, and federal requirement before they go out. If errors are caught after the fact, contracts will have to be amended, costing time and money.

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Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

According to an internal HSD memo from June, the department decided to shut down the contracts review unit because human-service providers that receive funding through the city “are asking more and more of us, and rightfully so, including better wages for their workers, an annual cost-of-living increase that matches the actual inflation rate in Seattle, fewer barriers in applying for our funding, and simpler contracts. We are years behind schedule in giving this to them because no one ever has the capacity to work on this.” The funding freed up by eliminating contract review jobs, the memo continues, will go toward “reducing operational burdens on providers.”

Ironically, one of the errors the contract review unit reportedly caught last year was a provider that failed to provide the 2 percent wage increase the city required in its 2019 budget. (HSD and the mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation or comment on this question, which I initially asked them about more than a week ago).

“Although we will make our best efforts to support the divisions in this transition, at this time there is no added capacity. We also realize that staff doesn’t just write contracts, there are many other duties they perform that these changes will impact.”

The June memo goes on to explain how the city will get by without the additional layer of oversight that was added in response to the state audit just four years ago: “This change will require every person who touches a contract to have a high level of individual accountability in order to make this work. … If each individual holds themselves to a high level of accountability, then we can operate more efficiently without additional resources.”

“Although we will make our best efforts to support the divisions in this transition, at this time there is no added capacity. We also realize that staff doesn’t just write contracts, there are many other duties they perform that these changes will impact.” Continue reading “City Shuts Down Unit Charged with Fixing Contract Compliance Problems Identified in Scathing 2014 Audit”

A Ban on Natural Gas, a High-Security City Picnic, and More City Hall Departures

Gas, Fire, Hot, Cooking, Hotplate, Burner, Gas Stove
Verboten? O’Brien to propose ban on new gas hookups; image via Pixabay

1. Last Wednesday, at the direction of new Seattle Department of Human Resources Director Bobby Humes, several high-ranking staffers at the department were reportedly told to pack their bags and leave the building—a departure from the Durkan Administration’s more common practice of giving city staffers the opportunity to “resign” and stick around for a couple of weeks. I have calls out to the HR department for more information about the departures.

The three staffers reportedly included deputy director Laura Southard, who was closely associated with former director Susan Coskey and former interim director Sue McNab, and Deborah Jaquith, SDHR’s public information officer. (Southard’s and Jaquith’s outgoing voice mail messages feature the same voice saying they are no longer with the city.)

Crosscut has reported extensively on the department, which is responsible for investigating employee allegations of sexual harassment and other complaints. After Coskey resigned in 2017, Durkan appointed a succession of interim directors, including McNab, who withdrew her name from consideration for the permanent position after an internal investigation found she worked outside the city for two of her seven months in office, as Crosscut also reported.

Humes, the former HR director for the city’s parks department, was sworn in last month.

2. Amid turmoil at the city’s Human Services Department (the homelessness division is being dissolved as part of the merger into a new joint county-city public development authority overseeing homelessness, and many employees expect to lose their jobs in the process), HSD deputy director Audrey Buehring informed employees yesterday that the department had hired security guards to patrol the annual departmental picnic.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

“Because we value the safety of our employees, HSD has decided to hire security personnel to be at our event. There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to you and your guests and to visibly deter any trespassers. Security personnel will be identifiable, so if you have any concerns or see anything that could pose a threat to our safety, be sure to report them immediately to security personnel,” Buehring wrote.

Asked for further details about the decision to hire security, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding responded, “There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to our staff and their guests and to visibly deter any trespassers.” OK then!

The theme of this year’s HSD “Summer Jam,” by the way, was “’90s.”

3. City council member Mike O’Brien plans to introduce legislation that will, among other things, ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, another step (along with Durkan’s proposed tax on heating oil, which is designed to get homeowners to convert to cleaner energy sources by 2028) toward the city’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. Few details were available about the proposal, which O’Brien will introduce on Tuesday; a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas to more than 800,000 customers (many of them in Seattle) said the company had not seen O’Brien’s legislation yet. “Natural gas is critical to providing our customers with the safe, clean, affordable, and reliable energy they expect,” the spokesman, Andrew Padula, said.

4. An internal HSD email indicates that Mayor Durkan’s 2020 budget will include a 2.6 percent pay increase for front-line human service workers who work for city contractors, an increase from last year’s hotly contested 2 percent “inflationary” hike.

Last year, Durkan initially proposed a 2 percent increase just for workers funded through the city’s general fund. When council members, including Teresa Mosqueda, proposed paying for the raises with funding the mayor had added to expand the Navigation Team, Durkan initially characterized the move as a “cut” to critical services. (The Nav Team expansion had been funded with one-time dollars, but—as is often the case with such “temporary” programs—the expansion became permanent.)

Ultimately, the council found the money and the Navigation Team expansion stuck. HSD hasn’t yet confirmed the 2.6 percent increase (I sent requests for more information to the agency and the mayor’s office on Wednesday, and will update this post if I hear back), but it will be welcome news to human service workers, who often make just above minimum wage.