Tag: Human Services Department

Durkan’s Comms Director To Depart; Mayor’s $250,000 General Submits One-Pager on What He Does All Day; and HSD Expects Long Contract Delays

Buried in paper: A screen shot from one of several PowerPoints and memos provided to city council members in response to the question, ““Please provide the official job title, job description, salary and source of funding for the Director of Citywide Mobility Operations. Please describe the position’s responsibilities, accomplishments and anticipated deliverables.”

1. Mark Prentice, a spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan who served as her communications director for the past year, is leaving Durkan’s office before the end of the year to “explor[e]opportunities to elect Democrats in 2020 and continue advocating for the issues we all care about,” according to an internal email from Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas.

Prentice joined the mayor’s office after working for the developer Vulcan; prior to that, he (like Formas) worked for various Democrats in Washington, D.C. “Anyone who has worked with Mark knows it’s a 24/7 job that has meant countless early mornings, late nights, and weekends. I can’t think of a dull moment or a slow week, and Mark and the entire Communications Team have been critical to our major accomplishments,” Formas wrote.

The city has already advertised Prentice’s job, which pays between $102,458 and $169,023, on the Government Jobs hiring website.

Many of these departments have little or nothing to do with traffic management, and the job of reforming the city’s overall management strategy appears nowhere in Worden’s official job duties.

2. As the city council debates Mayor Durkan’s budget, one very specific line item has sparked several council members’ interest: The $200,000 position of “mobility operations director,” created for retired Air Force general Mike Worden, who was one of the runners-up for Seattle Department of Transportation director. (Worden, whose salary is partly funded with SDOT dollars, reports directly to Durkan.) Late last month, several council members asked for more details about what Worden (whom city staffers have been instructed to call “the General”) actually does; as I reported in August, his official schedule consists largely of “out and about time” during which the mayor’s office told me Worden is riding transit and talking to riders and drivers. “Not to say that work is not happening, but I am not aware of any of the work,” council member Mike O’Brien said.

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 subscriptions 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.

During that meeting, city budget director Ben Noble said the executive had provided O’Brien with a memo describing some of Worden’s specific duties, prompting council members Sally Bagshaw, Lisa Herbold, and Lorena Gonzalez to ask for a public discussion of that information, which they had not seen. Since then, I requested and received copies of what the mayor’s office provided as evidence that Worden’s position is a full-time job that merits his $200,000 salary ($250,000 when benefits are included). For reference, here is Worden’s job description:

And here is the memo Worden produced with examples of his work so far, along with PowerPoints and other documents related to the items on his list. The one-page list—which does not purport to be comprehensive— includes the following four items:

• Writing a memorandum of understanding for traffic incident and congestion management that “updated, sharpened and expanded to other Departments who respond to incidents, to ensure they all get necessary training” in traffic incident response;

• Co-writing a grant with the state Department of Transportation and the University of Washington for a statewide “Virtual Coordination Center” aimed at improving responses to traffic incidents.

• Implementing a “Lean/Six Sigma initiative throughout the city,” starting with SDOT, the Parks Department, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle City Light, the Department of Information Technology, the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, and Human Resources, according to a PowerPoint included with the memo. Many of these departments have little or nothing to do with traffic management, and the job of reforming the city’s overall management strategy appears nowhere in Worden’s official job duties. In a memo included in the PowerPoint,, deputy mayor Mike Fong says Worden was tapped for this job because of his “considerable private sector and governmental experience in process improvement techniques.”

Buried in jargon: A screen shot from a PowerPoint about Gen. Worden’s “Lean/Six Sigma” training for eight city departments, which is not listed in his official job description or duties as the city’s Director of Mobility Operations.

• “Informal activities” related to the “Seattle Squeeze,” including “government wide debriefs and prebriefs with the City’s Private Sector” and meeting periodically with representatives from other government agencies.

Also included on this “informal activities” list: Riding transit throughout the city, an activity that made up the plurality of his official schedule.

3. According to an October 3 memo from the risk manager for the Human Services Department, “2019 review of contracts are and will be significantly delayed,” after the departure of the last remaining member of the HSD’s contract review unit, which ensures that contracts between the city and nonprofit service providers are legally compliant and accurate. “We are hoping to have a plan in place very soon,” the memo says.

The department decided to dismantle the office that reviewed provider contracts earlier this year in an effort to reallocate funding to  “reducing operational burdens on providers.” With the departure of the contract review specialist Joanna Armstrong, whose last day was Friday, the department has no one left whose full-time job consists of reviewing contracts and ensuring that they’re ready to go out the door.

The contract review unit (known as the 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 or how human service providers were spending the money they received from the city. 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.

Long-term, the city plans to devolve the job of ensuring contract compliance to various department staffers who are already working other jobs, including contract specialists who write—but don’t currently review—contracts as well as others who have not been trained in contract compliance. Short-term, the lack of contract reviewers will likely mean funding delays for human service providers who rely on city funding to pay their staff and serve their clients.

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.

Questions About Local Autonomy and Cost-Sharing at Homelessness Authority, SPD Hires KOMO Cop Reporter, and More

Emoji org chart: What staffing at the new regional authority homelessness will look like, as depicted by the consultant who helped design the plan

1. Two meetings about the proposed regional homelessness authority last week highlighted new potential fault lines between the city and county in negotiating the structure and funding of the new authority—one concerning the kind of services the new authority will provide, and one having to do with who will pay for it.

Suburban King County cities that would become a part of the authority have made it clear they’re concerned that the new body will be too “Seattle-centric”—an understandable concern given that just one member of the steering committee that oversees the body will be from a to-be-determined member of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban King County cities. (Under the proposal, another suburban representative could join the board once 20 suburban cities join the regional authority). A related but distinct concern is that suburban cities may not want to handle homelessness the way Seattle does, by offering services for as long as it takes and providing harm reduction as an alternative to mandatory treatment and imposed abstinence for people with addiction.

From the perspective of a city like Kent, where outreach workers say police have a zero-tolerance policy for sleeping in visible public areas, the tactics of  Seattle’s Navigation Team—which removes encampments but doesn’t arrest people for living on the street or force them to “accept” services, treatment, and housing—may seem like mushy-hearted liberalism at its worst. At last week’s King County Board of Health meeting, King County Council member Kathy Lambert, whose district includes Duvall, North Bend, and Snoqualmie, said she won’t support the regional authority “until I see a plan that acknowledges that each part of of this county has a very different idea of where they want to be and what they want to look like, and I’m not seeing that yet.”

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 contribution 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.

On the flip side, at a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s special committee on homelessness last Friday, city council president Bruce Harrell asked whether the Navigation Team, which (as I reported earlier this month) is not moving over to the new authority, will expand its operations outside the city or otherwise coordinate with other cities who have employees doing similar encampment-clearing functions. (In reality, the Navigation Team is fairly unique regionally and the equivalent agency in most other cities is the police). “I assumed we were trying to model some consistency overall—am I missing something?” Harrell asked.

Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s homelessness advisor, responded that the charter creating the new authority will allow for “subregional planning, which is a way for the regional authority to engage in the various regions across the county and be in dialogue about what homelessness looks like in different parts of the region and how it’s being addressed.” Specifically, the charter says that the kinds of services each sub-region of the county can vary depending on “local needs, priorities, and solutions.”

2. The other issue that came up this week was whether the city of Seattle might be paying more than its fair share of the cost to set up and, at least initially, fund the authority. The numbers HSD director Jason Johnson and National Innovation Service consultant Marc Dones presented to the council committee on Friday showed the city spending $1 million in startup costs next year (and $282,000 in “ongoing costs” beginning the year after that), including more than $800,000 in moving and office costs and $130,000 for a headhunter to find the $217,000-a-year executive director for the new authority. The city would also be responsible for paying that director’s salary, plus the salaries of his or her chief of staff ($166,000 in 2021), two deputy directors ($189,000 each), and a human resources manager ($163,000).

“I’m concerned that city paying all the costs in that first year is going to create an expectation” that the city will continue to pay all the costs in the future, city council member Lisa Herbold said. “You say that there’s an expectation that there’s going to be future cost sharing around the costs of personnel, and I don’t see that indicated anywhere.

The county, in contrast, would contribute tenant improvements in the county-owned Yesler Building, where the new authority will be located, and provide free rent, at a total value of about $1 million for “tenant improvements” and $455,000 for the use of the sixth floor of the building, which has been vacant. (Seattle Department of Human Resources director Bobby Humes described the tenant improvements as “wifi, new paint, a conference room [and] an ample restroom environment,” among other things.)

“I’m concerned that city paying all the costs in that first year is going to create an expectation” that the city will continue to pay all the costs in the future, council member Lisa Herbold told Johnson on Friday. “You say that there’s an expectation that there’s going to be future cost sharing around the costs of personnel, and I don’t see that indicated anywhere. I think that’s something that would be important to memorialize.” Council member Sally Bagshaw added that she wasn’t sure the city should be spending $130,000 for a headhunter to do a national search for the director of the new authority. “I have to say that I would rather have somebody local,” she said. “I would frankly rather have a team that knows people who are already working in our city, county, and region.”

Other issues that came up Friday included the need for human service provider representation on the board that will actually govern the new authority, the fact that capital funding for permanent supportive housing is supposed to stay with the city while operating funds for that same housing move to the new authority, and when people can actually start moving into the new building—Johnson said it will be “ready” in December, but that because “December is a heavy month for many of our employees” the actual move won’t happen until March.

3. KOMO police-beat reporter Jennifer Sullivan, who previously covered the police department for the Seattle Times, has taken a job as a strategic advisor in the  Seattle Police Department, The C Is for Crank has learned.  An SPD spokesman would not comment about how the department decided to hire the former reporter, and a mayoral spokeswoman told me the mayor had nothing to do with the hire—even emphasizing in a followup email, “the Mayor’s Office was not involved in the hiring of Jennifer Sullivan.” According to the most recent Seattle employee salary database, Sullivan is making just under $120,000 a year.

Sullivan’s recent stories for KOMO have included pieces on slow 911 response times, recruitment problems at SPD, and police officers’ efforts to get raises in their recent contract, which some reform advocates now want to reopen. Sullivan’s husband, according to a 2018 Seattle Refined profile, is a police officer in Lynnwood .

Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment; her LinkedIn and Twitter pages still identify her as a KOMO reporter.

4. 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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”

Morning Crank Part 2: Homelessness Division Loses Another Key Player; Burgess Can’t Quit the Council

1. As I mentioned on Twitter last week, Navigation Team outreach leader Jackie St. Louis announced his resignation last month and his last day was last Friday. St. Louis did not return my calls asking about his decision to leave the city back in June, but he had recently been reassigned to a new position as “manager of unsheltered crisis response” in the Homelessness Strategy and Outreach division—a reassignment that could be interpreted as a demotion. Tiffany Washington, the erstwhile director of the homelessness division, also quit recently to become deputy director of the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning.

“So, this is where this part of my story ends. Not how I would have intended it to. Not how I would have envisioned it, but I accept that this is the way that it is supposed to be. Because a good name is worth more than any earthly reward, and integrity should never be entrusted to those who it is a stranger to.” – Former Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis, whose last day was last Friday

St. Louis told homeless service providers about his departure in a brief email. It read: “I wanted to take the time to thank you for your partnership over the years under what have been trying circumstances. I also want to wish you well and offer well wishes as you forge ahead with your respective missions. Though differing, they all help to try and create a better community for all those who call it home. Today will be my last day at the city.”

His departure letter to colleagues was significantly more dramatic. “To live is to wage war: war with the external forces that threaten our existence but even more so the war we wage with our own selves,” it began. “They tell us that history is told from the perspective of those who survive to recount that which has transpired. I challenge that assertion, because amongst us live and toil those who bear the scars of battles long since waged.

“It is not those who survive who tell those stories as much as it is those who still retain the desire of sharing the morbid details of things which they have most likely experienced as an observer. …

“The jury is still out on whether my ‘work’ here resulted in any significant impact for those whom it was intended. Yet, I am certain of the fact that I have been deeply impacted by your word and deeds. They have moved me toward being a better, more humble, more courageous, and resilient version of myself. …

“So, this is where this part of my story ends. Not how I would have intended it to. Not how I would have envisioned it, but I accept that this is the way that it is supposed to be. Because a good name is worth more than any earthly reward, and integrity should never be entrusted to those who it is a stranger to.”

St. Louis concluded by thanking a long list of colleagues. They did not, notably, include either Washington or Johnson.

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.

2. The Navigation Team also came up in a recent mailer from former mayor Tim Burgess’ PAC targeting city council incumbent (and Burgess’ former colleague) Lisa Herbold, who is running for reelection. In the mailer, Burgess’ group, People for Seattle, accuses Herbold of “vot[ing] to cut funding for the Navigation Teams tasked with reducing homeless camps.” This is inaccurate—as I reported at the time, although Herbold joined other council members in seeking a smaller permanent increase in the size of the team than Durkan initially requested, they ultimately gave the mayor everything she wanted, finding funds to marginally increase human service provider pay while preserve the increase in funding Durkan requested.

Burgess, who retired in 2017, has remained unusually active for a former elected official. Burgess’ PAC, which has raised more than a quarter-million dollars, has also sent out mailers accusing Kshama Sawant challenger Zach DeWolf of offering “more of the same” in an effort to boost Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce-endorsed candidate Egan Orion through the primary. This week, Burgess also sent an email to council members admonishing them directly for defying Durkan with their vote to create a dedicated fund for the soda tax, providing the language of the original bill establishing the soda tax, and suggesting four things the council “could have” done instead of creating the dedicated fund.

Burgess’ attempts to influence not only council votes, but the makeup of the council itself, have prompted some on the council to joke that he should probably just run for council again.

Morning Crank Part 1: City Acknowledges Navigation Team Rarely Provides Services or Outreach

1. Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson acknowledged that the city’s Navigation Team is now dedicated primarily to removing tents and people from public spaces, rather than providing outreach and services, at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness on Monday.

In an update on the work of the Navigation Team—recently expanded to include two new “system navigators” after the nonprofit that had been trying to connect homeless people living in encampments to services, REACH, said it would no longer participate in removals—Johnson told council members that “most” of the people the Navigation Team encounters when clearing out encampments “are complying, meaning they are moving themselves and their belongings out of the right-of-way and are not engaging in a services conversation with the system navigators.” The navigators were supposed to replace REACH outreach workers, who stopped participating in removals when it became clear that their presence was harming their ability to build trust with unsheltered people traumatized by frequent sweeps.

This is hardly surprising—under new policies implemented by Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team now focuses overwhelmingly on removing “obstruction” encampments without providing any prior notice or outreach, which tends to engender hostility and mistrust—but it was an unusually blunt acknowledgement of the facts on the ground.

Deputy Mayor David Moseley added that the city has no problem with people living outdoors—they just aren’t allowed to have any possessions that would make it slightly safer for them to do so. “Our mantra has been, it’s perfectly fine for you to stay here, but your equipment that’s obstructing the public right-of-way can’t.” (He clarified that by “equipment” he meant things like “your tent that is obstructing a wheelchair.”) Tess Colby,  the mayor’s homelessness advisor, added that homeless people had been “taking over” dugouts, picnic areas, and P-Patches, and the Navigation Team’s goal is to “get the public spaces back for public use.” In other words, unsheltered people are allowed to exist in public spaces, but they can’t have any type of shelter from the elements—a  view that may comply with the recent 9th Circuit ruling that homeless people have a right to sleep, but is somewhat at odds with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In any case, there aren’t enough places for people to go. Even leaving aside the fact that directing traumatized people to mats on the ground hardly qualifies as”outreach and services” most people living unsheltered require, the Human Services Department’s own numbers, which they also presented Monday, show that there are, on average,  only 17 beds of any kind available to the Navigation Team. Last month, the Navigation Team referred a total of 18 people to shelter, according to the city’s data.

2. NEW at 1pm Tuesday: On Tuesday, the city’s LGBTQ Commission sent a letter to Mayor Durkan and the council criticizing the recent increase in encampment removals, including the sharp increase in removals with no notice to residents. Citing reporting by this site, the commission wrote, “The current policy of encampment removals does nothing to solve the underlying issues that lead to homelessness, and instead this escalation seems to be a way to make it appear that the city is taking action versus gathering the political will to raise revenue to support real change.” Noting that LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people are more likely to become homeless, the letter continues, “Until there are adequate numbers of safe short-term beds available, there is a significant risk that folks whose tents are confiscated or destroyed in an encampment removal will have even less shelter from the elements than they had before.”

3. Also at Monday’s meeting, Johnson confirmed that the “see a tent, report a tent” posters that made the social-media rounds last weekend were not produced by the city, but added that the city does consider the Find It Fix It app an appropriate place to report people experiencing homelessness to the Navigation Team. “If there is someone you’re concerned with who is sleeping outdoors it is also a way to get that on the Navigation Team’s radar,” Johnson said. “It is through the Find It Fix It app that we can be alerted to someone who is in distress and may be in need of services.”

Council member Teresa Mosqueda asked Johnson to clarify that reporting tents is not the intended use of the app. “What is our response to people who have used the app in this inappropriate way?” she asked. “You can use the Find It Fix It app to report all sorts of inappropriate things,” Johnson responded.

As I reported last month, 20 percent of all illegal dumping reports made through the app are recategorized as illegal camping and referred to the Navigation Team.

Support The C Is for Crank
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.

Will Durkan’s High-Stakes Gamble With Soda Tax Revenues Pay Off?

On Monday, the city council is poised to pass legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien that would require any unanticipated revenues from the sweetened beverage tax (SBT) to be spent on their intended purpose—increasing funding for healthy food programs in the low-income communities most impacted by the soda tax.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has portrayed the move as a “cut” to programs that have historically been funded through the city’s general fund, but which the mayor’s 2019 budget started funding with the new tax, allowing her to use the “excess” general fund money to pay for other things. After Durkan and her department heads contacted human services providers last week to let them know that their funding could be eliminated if they didn’t help defeat O’Brien’s legislation, dozens of organizations—and the city’s own soda tax advisory board—rebelled, sending emails to Durkan and the council denouncing the hardball move. UPDATE: As of Sunday night, the groups opposing Durkan’s position—and supporting the idea that soda tax revenues should be spent on new or expanded programs, not used to backfill funding for existing ones—included groups representing the city’s farmers markets, human service providers, advocates for equitable investment in South Seattle, the Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board, and 27 food banks.

Council member Mike O’Brien proposed the legislation after Mayor Jenny Durkan balanced her budget last year by taking away $6 million in general-fund spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) and replacing that money with soda tax revenues; Durkan’s budget switcheroo went against the intent of the soda tax by using soda tax revenues to fund the city’s existing healthy food programs rather than expanding them or creating new ones. Effectively, Durkan’s budgetary sleight-of-hand eliminated the race and social justice compromise embedded in the tax: Instead of reinvesting the tax in the hardest-hit communities, the new budget maintained those programs at existing levels. Put another way, a regressive tax with a race and social justice component became just a regressive tax. O’Brien’s legislation would prevent this from happening in the future, by stating that (as a council staff memo puts it) “no SBT revenues could be used to supplant (i.e. take the place of) General Fund (GF) monies or other funding sources.”

In a letter to human services providers urging them to testify against O’Brien’s legislation Monday, interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson Johnson wrote, “Your contract is in jeopardy because of a recent Seattle Council legislative action.

Although O’Brien made clear a year ago that he planned to propose this legislation (giving the mayor’s office ample time to make their case against it), Durkan didn’t respond publicly until this week, when she sent out a blistering press release “denounc[ing]” and “condemn[ing]” the council for “a proposed plan … that would cut $6.3 million funding they had approved for critical programs that provide nutrition assistance, child care for struggling families, and nursing care for low-income pregnant women.” (Durkan’s public statement followed a letter her budget director, Ben Noble, sent to the council making many of the same points late last month.)

Durkan’s press release went on to enumerate some of the previously existing programs that the city, under her budget, began funding with soda-tax revenues instead of general fund dollars last year, including the Fresh Bucks food voucher program, food banks, child care assistance, and the Nurse Family Partnership. (The council approved the budget 8-1. Durkan’s letter cites this vote to suggest that the the council supported this specific aspect of the budget, which many of them did not).

Council members O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, Lorena Gonzalez, and Teresa Mosqueda responded with a letter of their own, arguing that the legislation merely codifies what the law already said—that new soda tax revenues should go toward new programs promoting healthy food, not be used to supplant general fund revenues used to fund existing programs. “Community advocates led the fight to ensure sweetened beverage tax revenue have a direct community benefit for the most impacted community by this regressive tax,” the council members wrote. “[T]he very programs the Mayor claims would be ‘cut’ should see increases in funding to expand those programs in the Mayor’s proposed 2020 Budget, assuming she does not chose to once again raid those funds for alternate priorities.”

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.

Durkan’s lobbying efforts didn’t stop at the council; her deputy mayor, Mike Fong, directed interim Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson and Department of Education and Early Learning director Dwane Chappelle to send letters to the agencies whose operations were funded by the tax last year informing them “that they should commence contin[g]ency planning as soon as possible” and urging them to show up and testify against the proposal during the council’s public comment period on Monday. In his letter to providers, Johnson wrote, “Your contract is in jeopardy because of a recent Seattle Council legislative action.” (Bolds in original.)

Johnson’s letter continued:

Last November, the adopted and endorsed 2019-2020 Biennium Budget, passed by an 8-1 vote and signed by the Mayor, allocated Sweetened Beverage Tax revenues to support food and education related assistance programs. The law currently permits soda tax revenues to be used for food and nutrition programs, education and child-based programs, job retraining and placement programs for workers adversely impacted by the tax. Unfortunately, the Council has now changed its mind and would rather have this $6.3M in revenue support unspecified new programs next year while providing no funding to back-fill the cuts to currently funded programs.

This legislation is scheduled for the vote of Full Council at its Monday, July 22 meeting, which starts at 2:00 p.m. Councilmembers will take public testimony on the legislation before final action.

The effort appears to have backfired. Instead of agreeing to show up and lobby on the mayor’s behalf, the Seattle Human Services Coalition and Got Green, an organization that fights displacement and promotes economic opportunity and equitable investment in South Seattle, wrote letters of their own denouncing the mayor’s tactics. UPDATE: Four more organizations representing farmers’ markets, including the Pike Place Market Foundation and the Seattle Farmers Market Association, have signed a separate letter condemning the mayor for blaming any future budget cuts by her office—which writes the budget—on the council. To do so, the groups wrote, “assumes that we are uninformed of the City’s budget process and the funding sources used to support the totality of our programs.”

“If the mayor does not propose funding in the 2020 budget from a source other than [Sweetened Beverage Tax], as your Council Bill would direct, it would be the mayor who is proposing the cut, not Council.” —Letter from the Seattle Human Services Coalition about Durkan’s response to the council’s soda tax legislation

The Human Services Coalition, which represents nonprofit human services providers, wrote that they are “disappointed by the communications from HSD, DEEL, and the Mayor’s Office to our organizations. … Characterizing this legislation and its impact as ‘jeopardizing’ 2020 contracts to current, successful services is at best misleading.

“It is the Mayor’s role in our three-branch system to implement policies which City Council legislates, and so up to the mayor if she will propose cutting the services instead of identifying an alternate fund source from the $6 billion annual revenue that comes into the City of Seattle.  If the mayor does not propose funding in the 2020 budget from a source other than SBT, as your Council Bill would direct, it would be the mayor who is proposing the cut, not Council.”

“It is entirely in the Mayor’s power, and in fact, is her responsibility, to find an appropriate, more stable funding source for the programs where SBT revenues were used to supplant general fund dollars.”—Letter from local farmers’ market organizations

Separately, Got Green urged its members and supporters to show up Monday to support the legislation and prevent Durkan from “pull[ing] millions of dollars that the council and previous mayor had promised for Food and Early Childhood Education programs and dump[ing] it in the general fund (where it becomes impossible to track and she can spend it on whatever she prioritizes.”

The email calls Johnson’s letter to providers an “ultimatum that organizations will have funding reduced unless they show up at a council meeting on Monday to provide public testimony against the ordinance to protect Food Security and Early Education Dollars.”

“Efforts to portray this legislation and its impact as causing funding cuts to organizations in POC and low income communities is not only misleading, but intentionally deceptive,” Got Green’s letter continues. “As community-based organizations working tirelessly to serve vulnerable Seattle residents, most are allied and will refuse to take your bait in attempting to pit our organizations and our issues against each other in the name of scarce funding and funding cuts.”

The farmers’ markets’ letter notes that the soda tax is an unpredictable funding source (increasing when soda consumption is up and decreasing when it is down) that should be used for one-time programs, not to fund ongoing needs that would ordinarily be paid for by the more stable general fund. “In order for programs to establish themselves, show impact, and grow to meet the rising need for food security in the City of Seattle, reliable and consistent sources of funding for these critical programs are needed,” their letter says. “It is entirely in the Mayor’s power, and in fact, is her responsibility, to find an appropriate, more stable funding source for the programs where SBT revenues were used to supplant general fund dollars.”

The mayor’s office has confirmed that she plans to veto the legislation, which means it will eventually need the support of a veto-proof six-member majority to override her veto even if it passes with just five votes on Monday. If the council does decide to call the mayor’s bluff, it will mark a major shift in council-mayor relations: Although this council has frequently fought with Durkan over spending, they’ve typically gone along in the end—voting, for example, to kill the controversial “head tax,” which Durkan opposed, after passing it last year. Lately, council members (particularly Gonzalez, Mosqueda, and Herbold) have been pushing back on Durkan more forcefully—including last week, when the three called on the mayor to reopen police contract negotiations in light of a judge’s finding that the city is partially out of compliance with federally mandated reforms.

The council’s soda tax legislation passed out of committee unanimously, with five votes, on July 10. I’m calling around to council offices and will update this post if I find out more about how the remaining council members plan to vote.

Morning Crank: City Homelessness Director Resigns, Offers New Explanation for Decrease In 72-Hour Encampment Removals

1. Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Tiffany Washington, who heads up  the Homeless Strategy and Investment division within the city’s Department of Human Services, has submitted her resignation to interim HSD director Jason Johnson, the C Is for Crank has learned. As I reported on Twitter Wednesday morning, Washington will be taking a new position as deputy director at the city Department of Education and Early Learning starting on September 18.

The news, which was just announced to HSD and DEEL staff late Wednesday morning, comes at a tumultuous time for the division, whose functions will be at least partly subsumed by a new regional agency that is supposed to launch later this year. Parts of the homelessness division are currently undergoing reorganization, and staffers are experiencing “a lot of anxiety” because “they don’t know where their jobs are going to be or what’s going to happen to them” as part of the regional consolidation of county and city homelessness services, says Shaun Van Eyk, a union representative for PROTEC17, which represents about 3,000 city workers.

Many positions at HSI are currently vacant, including the job of division director, which was Washington’s title until she was promoted to deputy director in 2018. One in three positions in the grants and contracts section, which prepares and administers contracts with human services providers, is currently empty.

In an email to homeless service providers, Johnson announced Washington’s resignation “with great gratitude and sadness” and cited a number of accomplishments during her two years heading up the homelessness division: heading up the first year of competitive contracting for homeless service providers, including a controversial “performance pay” provision that docks human service organizations for failing to meet predetermined performance metrics; opening new tiny house village encampments; expanding the Navigation Team, a group of police officers, data crunchers, and city outreach and cleanup workers; and increasing the number of shelter beds.

But Washington also presided over a time of low morale within her division. In to an employee survey released earlier this year and first reported here, homelessness division employees reported feeling left out of major decisions, unheard by management, and uninformed about matters affecting them. At the time, Johnson was seeking permanent appointment to the position and was facing intense scrutiny, much of it coming from HSD employees who felt Johnson was insensitive to racial dynamics at HSD and demanded a transparent and competitive hiring process. Less than a month after the survey was released, it became clear that Johnson did not have the council votes to secure a permanent appointment, and Mayor Jenny Durkan pulled his nomination, saying that he would continue filling the role in a technically interim capacity through at least 2020 (Durkan’s term ends in 2021).

Johnson’s email to service providers Wednesday concluded by noting that “Currently, there is a job posting open for a Division Director to help carry this work forward for the next year. Please recommend this opportunity to those in your network who might be interested.”

In an email, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding said the department’s top priority was filling the long-vacant Division Director position, and that once that happens, the department will “evaluate any other needs, as we also continue to move on the regional authority work. Each open position will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Support The C Is for Crank
Hey there! Just a quick reminder that this entire site, including the post you’re reading, is supported by generous contributions from readers like you, without which this site would quite literally cease to exist. If you enjoy reading The C Is for Crank and would like to keep it going, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter by subscribing on Patreon.

For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a 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 reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. Washington’s imminent resignation was not yet public knowledge (nor were all council members at the table aware it was coming) on Tuesday, when she presented the latest quarterly report on the Navigation Team’s progress at the city’s civil rights committee meeting. I wrote about the report, which helped to confirm my own reporting that the Navigation Team is now primarily removing “obstruction” encampments that do not require advance notice or offers of services,  back in May.

Council members pressed Washington to explain why the Navigation Team has shifted its focus away from what Washington called “72-hour cleans”—encampment removals in which residents get 72 hours’ advance notice, plus access to one of the enhanced shelter beds that are set aside for Navigation Team referrals. Initially, Washington questioned whether this shift was even happening (“you’re saying that there are less 72-hour cleans than there were at this time last year; I don’t know if that’s true,” she said—an assertion that prompted committee chair Lisa Herbold to respond, “It’s 95 percent”). Then she said the team has shifted away from doing 72-hour removals because there simply aren’t enough “viable shelter options” to offer beds to all the people living in encampments who might want to move inside. “The number of shelter beds that are available dictate the number of 72-hour cleans,” she said. On a typical night, according to the quarterly report, there are 17 shelter beds available exclusively to the Navigation Team.

Update: HSD spokeswoman Olberding says Washington’s intent was not to suggest any relationship between the reduction in 72-hour removals and the increase in removals of “obstruction” encampments, which she says “are occurring at a higher rate to address encampments that consistently impact the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-ways and open spaces.”

Last month, the head of the Navigation Team, Sgt. Eric Zerr, told me that Mayor Jenny Durkan “really wants us to focus on right-of-way and parks,” adding that the change should not be attributed to “anything except for shifting around some priorities.” And Mark Prentice, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the increase didn’t represent “a new trend,” but was part of a “long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”

Annual Homeless Count: Redefining “Shelter,” Struggling to Count the Chronically Homeless

The latest annual report on King County’s homeless population from All Home King County found an overall decrease in the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, from 4,488 last year to 3,558 in 2019—a reduction Mayor Jenny Durkan touted in a letter announcing the expansion of the Navigation Team as “the first decrease since 2012″ and evidence that ” our shared work to address our crisis of affordability and homelessness is having an impact.” Over the same time period, the number of people experiencing homelessness who were in some form of shelter or transitional housing increased from 4,000 to 4,239.

This year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category.

However, those numbers conceal a few important details: First, that the number of unsheltered people living in tent encampments actually went up in this year’s count, from 1,034 to 1,162. Second, this year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments that were previously categorized as encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category. (A sixth village, at Northlake, was excluded “until it is up to ADA code,” according to the board minutes.) Including the tiny houses—communities where people live in wooden structures the size of a small garden shed—in the “encampment” count would have raised that number to 1,342. The board vote on the redefinition was split 10-4.

In a letter to the All Home board in March, Seattle Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson requested that the tiny houses be moved to the “shelter” category, arguing that they meet “the most relevant” criteria set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for “shelter”—namely, that the structures are ADA accessible, that there is security on site, that the site has hygiene facilities, that the structures are ventilated, and that they include sanitary food preparation areas. In the letter, Johnson also notes that the five tiny house villages have case management and offer extended hours or 24/7 access.

“If basic shelters, which only allow people to come in overnight and sleep on floor with no services and amenities are classified as shelter, then permitted villages that meet the HUD requirements of shelter, and have amenities, services and outcomes that far exceed that of basic shelter, should also be classified as such,” Johnson wrote.

Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which was responsible for what was then called the One-Night Count until All Home took over in 2017, called the reclassification of tiny house villages as shelter “Orwellian” and out of keeping with decades of established practice.

HUD’s minimum criteria for emergency shelter (Appendix A) also include additional requirements, such as smoke detectors in each unit, structural standards, compliance with fair housing rules, heating and cooling, and other requirements that Johnson did not mention in his letter.

The report also found a reduction in the number of veterans, young people, and chronically homeless people living outdoors. Of those three categories, the decrease in veteran and youth homelessness is a clear result of new investments in shelter and housing targeted at those specific populations. The apparent decline in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, however, could be a result of the methodology used to come up with that number, which is an extrapolation based on in-person interviews with chronically homeless individuals—defined as individuals who have experienced homelessness for a year or more or on four separate periods during a three-year span, and who also have a disabling condition that prevents them from working or going to school.

Extrapolating these numbers to Seattle (based on the percentage of the population , this finding would suggest that the number of chronically homeless unsheltered people—increased from just over 1,200 in 2017 to nearly 1,800 in 2018, then decreased to just over 600 people between 2018 and 2019. Since chronically homeless people are, by definition, people who are homeless year after year, and since there has not been any massive investment in new permanent supportive housing for hundreds of chronically homeless people in Seattle, the obvious conclusion is that these numbers are not an accurate guide to the actual number of unsheltered chronically homeless people in Seattle from year to year. A similar fluctuation can be seen in the number of unsheltered people with mental illness and substance use disorders—a pattern that probably reflects the challenges with the methodology All Home’s researchers use, rather than any wild fluctuation in the number of people living on the streets with mental illness and addiction from year to year.

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, says the surveys that serve as the basis for the counts of unsheltered people in various sub-populations may be to blame. “They survey people, then extrapolate out to the total number of people who are unsheltered, so if one year if you happen to interview a bunch of people who meet the criteria for chronic homelessness, and the next year you interview a bunch of people who don’t, then you’re going to end up multiplying a factor and applying it to the total number of unsheltered people,” Malone says. “I think you naturally have to be much less confident in that kind of demographic extrapolation.”

Support The C Is for Crank
Hey there! Just a quick reminder that this entire site, including the post you’re reading, is supported by generous contributions from readers like you, without which this site would quite literally cease to exist. If you enjoy reading The C Is for Crank and would like to keep it going, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a 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 reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Kira Zylstra, All Home’s acting director, acknowledges that “there is fluctuation with all of these numbers” based on survey data, “particularly with more refined slices of the data. … For chronically homeless and people with disabilities and other characteristics and needs, it’s dependent on a representative survey, which has even further limitations, as well as reported data” obtained through other sources.

To put a finer point on it, information obtained on sheltered people through the county’s Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) is generally pretty good, because it’s based on tracking individual people from year to year—a fact that’s reflected in the number of chronically homeless people in shelter, which has fluctuated only slightly between 2017 and now.

Information on chronically homeless people living on the streets is much less reliable for a number of reasons , including the fact that interview subjects are located by formerly homeless people themselves, who may gravitate to people and places they already know; the fact that people with major disabilities may face extra challenges that make them less likely to participate in lengthy, in-person interviews with researcher; and the fact that the survey results are extrapolated to apply to much larger populations, despite the fact that in the case of unsheltered people in particular, the survey itself may be unrepresentative.

This year,  the data on all chronically homeless individuals in King County is extrapolated using surveys with about 180 people, some of whom did not respond to all questions. Anything unrepresentative about this population will be multiplied and magnified when the researchers extrapolate from that small sample to the entire homeless population in King County and Seattle. For example, the researchers reached conclusions about the chronically homeless population by figuring out what percentage of survey respondents fit into certain categories—sheltered vs. unsheltered, individual vs. families, etc.—and multiplying that percentage by the total number of people in the general street count in those categories.

Malone, whose organization works primarily with chronically homeless people, says he hopes the extrapolated surveys of unsheltered people won’t be used to dictate policy or funding decisions or to fuel self-congratulatory press releases. He maintains that the best use of the count is as a general comparison of homelessness from year to year—by that standard, he says, the real story is that the unsheltered homeless population has declined as the number of shelter beds in Seattle has increased.