Tag: Human Services Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle Council Legislation Would Rein In Encampment Sweeps During Pandemic

A few of the 68 tents I counted along South Weller St. between Rainier Ave. S and 12th Ave. S. The city’s Human Services Department plans to remove this encampment next week, along with a smaller one nearby.

City council member Tammy Morales, whose South Seattle district includes two encampments in the International District that the Seattle Human Services Department plans to remove next week, has introduced legislation that would restrict the circumstances under which Mayor Jenny Durkan can order encampment sweeps during the pandemic.

The proposal comes after Durkan announced that “all encampment removal operations have been suspended,” with exceptions for “extreme” circumstances, on March 17. Although the directive gave five examples of situations that would qualify as “extreme,” including tents in the middle of roads or completely blocking a sidewalk, it did not actually define “extreme,” allowing sweeps to continue on an essentially ad hoc basis.

The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, would prohibit the city from removing encampments except when the encampment poses an “immediate hazard” (as defined here); blocks a curb ramp, bike lane, or most of a sidewalk; presents a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure; obstructs the entrance or exist of a building; or is located in a children’s play area. The city could also remove encampments that constitute “an active health threat,” but only if the people living there have been offered “appropriate public health resources” that have failed to resolve the threat, and if “relocating would resolve the health threat.”

Mosqueda says she added the public health language after Durkan’s office cited “hepatitis A and COVID” as public health reasons to remove encampments, without explaining whether they were referring to diagnosed cases of COVID-19 or merely the concern that people living in encampments aren’t staying six feet apart.

“If they are citing COVID as a reason [for removing tents], that is very problematic, because we need to know where those folks are so that we can respond immediately and get people the appropriate public health resources that they need,” rather than “dispersing them throughout the city,” Mosqueda says.

Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Navigation Team has not provided hotel rooms to people at the encampments it has removed. Instead, the team has promised spaces in mass shelters such as the Navigation Center or spots in tiny house villages, a form of authorized encampment where people sleep in individual “tiny houses” but share restrooms, eating areas, and other common facilities.

“We know that congregate shelters are counter to what the CDC guidance has said, and it is not realistic, even in congregate shelters that have beds six feet apart,” to keep COVID from spreading, Mosqueda says.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

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

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

“We need to make sure that the city is sticking to what we declared, which was that during this crisis, we were not going to be moving people, and I think that the fact that this continues to happen is really beginning to erode the trust in the city,” Morales says. “The mayor can make al the pronouncements she wants, but if HSD isn’t actually following those declarations, then we need to make sure that there’s a policy in place.”

Morales says that unlike the situation in Ballard, where an indignant online petition signed by thousands of people and an incendiary KOMO report may have helped tip the mayor’s hand, the community around the two International District encampments is not clamoring for sweeps. “People want solutions to the problem,” Morales says. The city could have partnered with Co-LEAD, a new program that places people experiencing homelessness in hotels and connects them to services, but chose not to do so—a decision Morales calls “a failure of leadership” by the mayor and HSD. “If there is a program that is set up that can provide people a safe place to move to and provide them with other resources that can help them get stable, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t do that,” she says.

Because of the COVID emergency, the council is barred from passing most legislation that is not directly related to the pandemic. Morales’ legislation, which requires seven votes to pass, would expire at the end of 2020 or when the city state of civil emergency ends, whichever is earlier. The full council will vote on the legislation on Monday, May 25.

City Auditor: Homelessness Contracts Awarded “Properly,” but Delays, High Turnover, and Inappropriate Metrics Remain Issues

The city auditor issued a report last week on the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, which concluded that while HSI is awarding contracts to homeless service providers “properly, HSD is not executing contracts in a timely manner.” Because the city is awarding budgeted contracts late, providers are being forced to use their own funds to cover services during these delays.

“We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late,” the report says. “Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses[.] …We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late. Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses and needing to use other funding sources to keep programs in operation.”

(The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is considered a homelessness program despite the fact that it focuses on criminal recidivism and quality of life outcomes, not housing, finally received city approval for its 2020 contract in late March).

A big reason for the delays, according to the auditor’s report, is that most contracts start on January 1, which gives the city’s grants and contracts administrators only a few weeks after the budget is adopted in November to execute these contracts. Another issue is that turnover among the grants and contracts specialists who are in charge of monitoring contract compliance is extremely high—30 percent in the first half of 2019, according to the audit—and new hires are being trained by their coworkers instead of through any formal training program. In his response to the audit report, acting HSD director Jason Johnson, who has announced he will leave in June, said HSD has hired temporary workers to help grants and contracts specialists who are “working beyond their capacity.” These are among the workers who are being trained on the job by their peers.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

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

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

As I reported last year, the Human Services Department dismantled its formal contracts compliance unit and directed contract specialists in each division to have “a high level of individual accountability” to catch errors in contracts. HSD set up the unit in 2014 after a scathing state audit found that the HSD lacked “adequate controls” to monitor how contracts were being written as well as how human service providers were spending grant money.

The city auditor did not report on specific errors that had escaped contract reviewers’ attention, but did note that many large contracts were being reviewed through “desk reviews” that do not involve on-site visits, meetings with program staff, or reviews of client files.

The auditor also highlighted an issue homeless advocates have been pointing out since before the city implemented “performance-based contracting,” which allows the city to withhold funding from providers if they fail to meet certain milestones: Requiring homeless service providers to produce a high number of “exits to permanent housing” in order to get full funding is unrealistic in a city that is not building enough of this type of housing to serve the need, and ignores other types of success stories that do not involve, say, a person leaving emergency shelter and moving directly into permanent housing.

For example, the city’s performance metrics penalize programs that move clients into “foster care, nursing homes, hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing and transitional living programs for youth” by counting those as “negative” rather than positive exits from the programs. In its response to this criticism, included in the audit, HSD said that it chose exits to permanent housing as a performance metric “because the goal of the homeless response system is to end an individual’s experience of homelessness and HSD is committed to ensuring investments work towards this goal”—a response that ignores the fact that the city’s homeless population far outnumbers the number of units that are available to house it.

Additionally, the audit found that the fact that the city has no way of tracking how many shelter beds are available in real time “creates inefficiencies for overworked shelter staff” who are forced to call around to other shelters when clients show up at shelters that are full. And it concluded that the current system for tracking client’s “vulnerability,” which puts some people on track for housing while leaving others in limbo indefinitely, exacerbates the existing racial inequities in the homeless service system, particularly for undocumented people.

Hepatitis A Spreads Among Ballard Homeless Population, As Hygiene Stations and Restrooms Remain in Short Supply

Ri

A new outbreak of new Hepatitis A cases among people experiencing homelessness in Ballard could get worse if people are unable to access sinks and showers, both of which remain in short supply in the neighborhood and across the city.

King County Public Health confirmed 11 new Hep A cases among people who self-identified as living homeless in Ballard this week, of 25 new confirmed cases in March. In January, when it became clear that the city was experiencing an outbreak but before COVID-19 shut down libraries and businesses open to the public where homeless people typically access restrooms, public health spokesman James Apa noted that “People who are living homeless or who are using drugs are more likely to have underlying health conditions that can be worsened by hepatitis A.”

Dr. Richard Waters, the medical director of homeless and housing programs for the Neighborcare Health clinic network, says that hepatitis A cases during the last two outbreaks, in 2018 and 2019, “were predominantly among people experiencing homelessness, in large part because of the lack fo sanitation facilities.” Now that there are even fewer places for people to wash their hands because of restroom closures, he worries that the virus will spread. “People use the bathroom who don’t, or are unable to, perform adequate hand hygiene, touch things that other people may touch … and it spreads. Hand hygiene is key,” Waters says.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Today, Apa said that the health department’s environmental health team is “connecting with Seattle Parks & Recreation to confirm best practice sanitation procedures of the Portland Loo at the Seattle Commons as a precaution.” The Portland Loo—a $550,000 public restroom designed to deter illicit behavior that was set up at the park last year—could be a vector for disease if people use the toilet and do not, or are unable to, use the handwashing station on the outside of the unit.

The Loo remained locked this afternoon, and several Honey Bucket port-a-potties——which the city refers to as “comfort stations”— had been set up nearby. Will Lemke, a spokesman for the city’s Human Services Department, says the restroom was closed “to ensure that staff were prepared and equipped to do the appropriate deep cleaning of the facility. The loo will reopen in the near future.”

Neither of the sinks at a temporary handwashing station adjacent to the portable toilets were working this afternoon, although the station was stocked with soap and paper towels.

Lemke also said that the Navigation Team was out in Ballard this morning handing out hygiene kits and information, and providing information about vaccinations. King County Public Health and Neighborcare provide hepatitis vaccinations to people experiencing homelessness. The area outside the Ballard library and the perimeter around the Ballard Commons, which is ordinarily cleared by the Navigation Team or Seattle police, has been crowded with tents ever since the library closed its doors on March 13. Much of the park was fenced off.

Earlier this week, the city released a map of the six new handwashing stations it is providing in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. An HSD blog post on hygiene services that was updated yesterday says that “at least four” mobile hygiene trailers, with showers, sinks, and toilets, will be coming online “soon” and are “under procurement.” As I reported yesterday, the city budget passed last year included $1.3 million to buy these units, but the city did not start looking for them in earnest until after the COVID-19 epidemic was underway. By that point, the trailers were in high demand, and the city has been unable to procure them.

Currently, the city’s plan is to rent two trailers from out of state, with the contract going through Seattle Public Utilities (SPU recently took charge of finding the trailers, which was previously the responsibility of HSD.) A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said Thursday that the trailers “are being delivered this week,” but that “we are still working through logistical and operational approaches including staffing. SPU needs to consider all public health guidelines to ensure the health and safety of employees and clients.”

State Buys Central District Nursing Home for Hospital Relief, City Hall Shelter Clients Still Sleeping Inches Apart, and More COVID News

1. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services has purchased the former Paramount Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Seattle’s Central District to serve as a hospital for people without COVID-19, at a cost of $13.5 million, The C Is for Crank has learned. The 165-bed nursing home closed down last month, after an analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services called it one of the worst-performing nursing homes in the country.

Chris Wright, a spokesman for the state COVID Joint Information Center, said the goal of the purchase is “to free up beds in hospitals during the crisis by finding patients who are currently in hospitals, but could receive the same level of care in this nursing home.” He says the state is “trying to find a contractor to run the facility and hope to open by the end of April.” The facility will create about 100 job openings, for nurses, food service workers, maintenance workers, and supervisors, Wright says.

2. As homeless shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit groups “de-intensified” their existing shelters by moving some clients to new locations, people are still sleeping inches apart at the nighttime-only shelter at City Hall, which is run by the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center. Staffing is apparently an issue; expanding the shelter to the red-glass lobby on Fourth Avenue (as has been discussed) or moving some shelter clients elsewhere would require additional Salvation Army employees or other staff.

A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said that “Many shelter operators, including the operator at the City Hall shelters, are facing staffing capacity constraints that make it challenging to split operations between multiple sites quickly. City staff have been stepping in to help staff shelters to meet this need, and we are working with the service provider to identify solutions.” A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said the group had nothing new to announce about the shelter.

The basic shelter at City Hall consists of 75 mats on the floor inside the Fifth Avenue lobby, which is open daily from 7pm until 7 in the morning.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

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

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

3. Staff at the city’s Human Services, Parks, and Seattle Center departments are being reassigned to front-line positions working in some of the new shelter spaces that have been opened for residents at  as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and distributing food through HSD’s division of Youth and Family Empowerment. These reassignments apply not just to the approximately 70 workers who have been specially trained to work in shelters, but also to other staffers who will be reassigned as part of the departments’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs), which shut down certain city facilities and functions while defining others as “mission essential.”

It’s unclear what, if any, long-term plan exists for city employees who would ordinarily be reassigned to front-line jobs but are in a high-risk group for COVID exposure. The mayor’s order authorizes departments to provide “full or partial compensation” to these workers, but the city did not provide any specific details about what that will look like, or whether some employees may eventually have to be furloughed until front-line services can open again.

4. Governor Jay Inslee confirmed on Saturday that the state is using prison labor to make hospital gowns during the COVID crisis. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the gowns are being produced by inmates at the Coyote Ridge medium-security prison in Franklin County. Inslee said Saturday that the prisoners were “very eager for this job, and we’re eager for their success in this regard.” Prisoners in Washington State make a fraction of the state minimum wage.

Prison reform advocates across the country, including in Washington State, have argued that state prison systems should release many incarcerated people to protect their health during the COVID crisis. Inslee said Saturday that “we have a commitment … to keeping these incarcerated individuals as safe as humanly possible” during the pandemic.

5. The Seattle City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution this afternoon asking Gov. Inslee to use his emergency powers to implement a moratorium on all residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments in the state, and to forgive any debt accumulated by renters and property owners after the COVID crisis has passed. The resolution, which also calls on the federal government to enact a similar policy nationwide, passed unanimously, though not without a bit of incredulous guffawing from council member Debora Juarez, who (along with her colleague Alex Pedersen) seemed skeptical about the idea of effectively canceling all rent and mortgage payments for the indefinite future.

“So you’re saying that a commercial [landlord] that owns 20-plus units, or apartments, who also has a mortgage to pay … that we are lobbying for them as well, under this administration and to our governor, that they too don’t have to pay their mortgage to the bank?” Juarez asked.

“That’s right,” the resolution’s sponsor, council member Tammy Morales, responded.

Pedersen expressed doubt about the legality of preemptively forgiving all rent and mortgage debt, and seemed to question whether renters would really need the help. “I’m concerned that [if] people are getting other relief, why would we want to then suspend the payments that are due when they’re getting relief from other angles?” he said. On the other hand, Pedersen said, “I have received lots of emails from constituents who are expressing their major concern and fear and pain that they’re suffering during this crisis, so I wish we had more time to think this through.”

Human Services Director Resigns Days After Contentious Meeting Leaves Navigation Team’s Future in Question

Jason Johnson, the embattled acting director of the Seattle Human Services Division, announced his resignation in a letter to staffers Friday morning—two days after an off-the-rails presentation to the city council about the work of the encampment-clearing Navigation Team. Johnson will leave the city in June. Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson, who presented at that meeting alongside Johnson and team director Tara Beck, announced her retirement shortly after Johnson’s resignation announcement went out. The high-level departures come on top of a wave of resignation notices within HSD’s homelessness division, which recently started offering unprecedented incentives to keep staffers from leaving.

I first reported the news of Johnson’s resignation on Twitter.

Johnson’s tenure as HSD director has been contentious. As deputy HSD director under former mayor Ed Murray, Johnson oversaw the implementation of Pathways Home, a realignment of the city’s homelessness spending toward “rapid rehousing” rather than temporary shelter or transitional housing, a framework that has ended up being more theory than practice. Also as deputy, Johnson oversaw the department’s shift toward performance-based contracting, in which agencies do not receive full funding unless they meet performance goals. And he oversaw the city’s new investments in enhanced shelters—shelters that offer some combination of 24/7 access, storage, services, and a lack of barriers such as sex segregation and sobriety requirements.

Johnson came under fire from the beginning of his tenure as acting director. As soon as Durkan sent his name to the city council for nomination (nine months after she tapped him for the job), HSD employees raised objections, saying he was not responsive to lower-level staff and requesting that the city do an open search process for a new director. (Employees from the homelessness division, in particular, were unhappy under Johnson and his predecessor Catherine Lester’s leadership; according to internal surveys, the number of people in the division who felt unappreciated and unacknowledged increased under their tenure.) During his appointment process, council members grilled Johnson on allegations of harassment and intimidation within the department, as well as whether he would make decisions independent of political direction from Mayor Jenny Durkan; after it became clear that he did not have the council votes to win nomination, Durkan withdrew his nomination, and he has served on an interim basis ever since.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported 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, ad-free site going. 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.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the Navigation Team, which removes encampments from parks and public spaces, shifted its focus away from its nominal purpose—navigating homeless people to shelter and housing—to simply removing encampments whenever they pop up in parks, on rights-of-way, and in other public spaces, with no advance notice or offers of shelter or other services. As the team’s latest quarterly report revealed, the Navigation Team now declares virtually all the encampments it encounters  exempt from all of the once-standard notice and outreach requirements established in 2017, by deeming then “obstructions”—a designation that allows the team to remove them right away. As Johnson articulated on Wednesday, HSD considers any encampment or tent in any park to automatically constitute an “obstruction,” whether it is actually obstructing anyone’s ability to use the park or not. In the last quarter, the team provided advance notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. This is likely among many reasons that only a tiny fraction of the team’s contacts with people living in encampments  lead to shelter.

At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier. This escalation corresponded with annual increases in the size of the team: Over two years, the team ballooned from 16 members, including eight outreach workers from nonprofits that specialize in case management, to 38, which allowed the team to remove encampments seven days a week. Also over that period, contracted outreach workers from REACH (Evergreen Treatment Services) stopped participating in encampment removals, citing the damage their participation caused to their relationships with the vulnerable people they serve, which prompted the city to hire two in-house “system navigators’ to be on site during encampment sweeps. The Seattle Police Department also trained 100 bike and Community Police Team officers to remove encampments directly, vastly increasing the number of police officers who can remove encampments without any participation from outreach workers.

Johnson’s departure (and Drake-Ericson’s, for that matter) leaves the future of the Navigation Team in question. Although most of the functions of the homelessness division are moving over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority over the course of 2020, the city insisted on keeping the Navigation Team in-house, moving it to another division within HSD (likely Youth and Family Services.) The council, which has been reluctant to rein in Durkan’s yearly expansion of the team, may finally balk this year, as council member Teresa Mosqueda takes over as head of the budget process.

And whoever Durkan nominates to replace Johnson should expect intense scrutiny. As new council member Tammy Morales—a former member of the city’s Human Rights Commission who opposes encampment sweeps—put it, “Seattle deserves leadership who listens, even when they might not like what we have to say, and it’s incumbent on this city’s leadership to include the community for HSD’s next director in the hiring process.”

Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter

Photos from a site journal for the removal of an “obstruction” encampment inside a small forested area in MLK Memorial Park

A presentation by the Human Services Department on the latest quarterly report from the Navigation Team, which showed that 96 percent of encampment removals are now occurring with no advance notice or outreach, was derailed almost immediately this afternoon, as city council members objected to the premise of a presentation touting the team’s success. The Navigation Team is a 38-member group of police and Human Services Department staffers that removes encampments.

No sooner had Navigation Team director Tara Beck told the council, cheerfully, that “every person the Navigation Team engages with is offered shelter,” than council member Kshama Sawant interrupted, saying, “I just cannot wrap my head around how out of touch this sort of bureaucratic presentation is.” Her colleague Teresa Mosqueda chimed in: “We’re having a hard time accepting that statement” that everyone is offered shelter. As the Navigation Team’s own report makes clear, just 24 percent of people the Navigation Team speaks to, or “contacts,” during encampment removals receive shelter referrals.

Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Navigation Team director Tara Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been working with encampment residents told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients.”

As I reported yesterday, the number of those people who actually go to shelter (as opposed to verbally accepting a referral in the middle of a chaotic and traumatic situation), fewer than 23 percent actually report to shelter within two days—a number that works out to just 6 percent of those contacted by the Navigation Team, or 45 people over a three-month period. Johnson suggested that the number would be higher if the people who went to shelter after 7 or 14 days elapsed were included, prompting Sawant to remark that the point of referring people somewhere when their encampment is removed is to get them sheltered right away, not weeks later. “What happens in… those [48] hours could be devastating to them. I feel like we have to at least make an attempt to not have a cavalier approach to this,” Sawant said.

The presenters—who, in addition to Johnson and Beck, included Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson—seemed to be caught flat-footed by the council’s barrage of questions, attempting to stick to a presentation that painted a sunny picture of the Navigation Team’s work. Beck referred repeatedly to efforts by Navigation Team field coordinators and system navigators (the two in-house outreach workers who took over when the city’s outreach partner, REACH, disengaged from the team last year) to “get to yes” with people living in encampments who were reluctant to “accept” offers of shelter, suggesting a level of sustained outreach that homeless service providers, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly said the team is not providing.

As it happens, that sweep in Martin Luther King Memorial Park occurred on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a day that the Navigation Team takes off. On the team’s internal encampment removal schedule, the holiday is notated with an inspirational quote: “Injustice anywhere is an injustice to people everywhere.”

Again and again, council members questioned the staffers’ claim that the Navigation Team offers shelter, storage, and assistance to everyone living in encampments—pointing out, for example, that the team often removes encampments that are obviously occupied without recording any “contacts” with any of the people living there at all. “How can you say that you are offering people shelter when 96 percent of encampment removals are exempt from prior notice?,” Mosqueda said. In response, Beck clarified: When she said that the Navigation Team offers shelter and services to everyone, she was only referring to traditional, 72-hour removals—which now make up just 4 percent of the Navigation Team’s work.

During one such removal—the clearing of a large encampment at South Dearborn Street and I-5—Beck said that all 40 or so encampment residents were offered shelter, but just 10 accepted. “Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been connecting people living there with emergency clothing, food, and medical care told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients,” according to an email obtained through a records request.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported 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, ad-free site going. 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.

“Case workers from various organizations have poured their energy into working together to provide assistance for folks living in that space,” the letter, from a case worker who is no longer with REACH, said. “All of this effort, all of the progress (however minimal it may appear) clients at [the Dearborn] Cloverleaf have made will be lost.”

here is a perverse incentive for HSD to continue calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, in the commonly understood meaning of that term, and to keep clearing encampments where they know people will either be absent or will not accept their offers of shelter. If the Navigation Team had a higher success rate, the system would quickly run out of beds to accept all their referrals. On an average night, according to the Navigation Team’s report, there are about 12 beds available among the ones set aside for Navigation Team referrals. (This point was not clear in the presentation or report, but a spokesman for HSD said this is what the number represents.) Half of these are in basic shelters where people sleep crowded together in bunks or on the floor—the type of shelter people who live in tents are the least likely to accept. Fundamentally, the system only “works” because most people don’t take shelter; if they did, the system would break down.

This would seem to suggest that the city needs to build more of the kinds of shelter people are likely to accept, such as tiny house villages, but Johnson said this would create another problem: “If we built enough shelter, we would then have another bottleneck, which would be at the front door of housing. You will never hear me say ‘let’s not build enough shelter,'” he continued, but it does move the goalposts in a way.” If we believe that shelter is better than living on the street, however, “moving the goalposts” even a little would still mean fewer people living, and dying, on sidewalks and in parks across the city. Continue reading “Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter”

Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever

1. Seattle Police Department Lt. Sina Ebinger, the Navigation Team leader who ordered a private trash contractor to haul away items from her house earlier this month, has reportedly been reassigned to other duties while the Office of Police Accountability conducts an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Sili Kalepo, the field coordinator who reportedly oversaw the trash pickup at Ebinger’s house, has reportedly been put on administrative leave by the Human Services Department.

SPD spokesman Patrick Michaud said the department isn’t “going to have any further comment on this investigation until it is complete” and suggested I could find out Lt. Ebinger’s current employment status with the department by filing a public disclosure request, which I have done. A spokesman for HSD said he couldn’t provide any details on an ongoing investigation but confirmed that Kalepo’s conduct is under review.

2. The Navigation Team’s encampment removal practices will come under scrutiny from the council’s special committee on homelessness Wednesday, when HSD director Jason Johnson and team director Tara Beck present a report responding to a number of council questions, including how the Navigation Team determines that an encampment is an “obstruction” that must be removed right away and how the team plans to increase the number of displaced encampment residents who actually show up to shelter. (These quarterly reports, which always cover a different set of questions, are required under a budget proviso adopted several years back.)

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has moved away from providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments—the “navigation” part of the equation—to a model where encampments are routinely designated as “obstructions” and removed without warning.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way.

The latest quarterly report confirms the continued escalation of this trend, noting that in the last three months of 2019, the team provided the once-standard 72 hours’ notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. Put another way, the Navigation Team deemed 96 percent of the encampments it removed in 2019 to be exempt from the once-standard outreach and notification rules adopted in 2017. At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported 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, ad-free site going. 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.

These numbers only account for encampments removed by the Navigation Team; as I’ve reported, some police officers have also been trained to remove encampments directly, without providing outreach or shelter referrals; during a three-month period last year, police authorized to remove encampments reported 515 “interactions” with people living in unsanctioned encampments, and made just nine referrals to shelter.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way. Citing the definition of “obstruction” from the city’s rules on unauthorized encampments, which includes “people, tents, personal property, garbage, debris or other objects related to an encampment that: are in a City park or on a public sidewalk,” the Navigation Team’s report argues: “Each of the items in the list above stand independently from one another, meaning only one statement needs to be true for an encampment to qualify as an obstruction.” As I’ve reported, this rule has already been interpreted broadly; for example, one encampment slated for removal last year was located down a steep, dangerous slope inside a grove of trees far away from any public path.

Only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter.

The Navigation Team did not respond to the council’s request for detailed information about each “obstruction” that justified an encampment removal. Instead, it provided a list of locations where “obstruction” encampments were removed, along with the number of “contacts” the team made at each encampment in the weeks before removing it. What’s most notable about this list is that the “contacts” column is a sea of “N/A”s—”not applicable,” meaning that the team removed tents, trash and personal property without talking to anyone who lived on-site at all.

When the Navigation Team did make contacts, the report shows, fewer than one in four accepted referrals to shelter, and of those, fewer than one in four actually showed up at the shelter to which they were referred. Put another way, only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter. This contrasts sharply with HSD’s own “performance-based contracting” standards for other outreach providers, who must refer at least 60 percent of their clients to shelter. According to the central staff memo, “There is no data to indicate that the Navigation Team’s effectiveness in connecting people with shelter improved” in the past quarter. Continue reading “Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever”

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

Trash piled up for pickup at an encampment next to I-5.

Seattle Police Department Lieutenant Sina Ebinger, the SPD lead for the city’s encampment-clearing Navigation Team, directed Cascadia Cleaning and Removal, a city contractor that removes trash from encampment sites, to haul away bulky items from her house over the weekend of February 8-9, the C Is for Crank has learned. According to several sources, Lt. Ebinger asked Cascadia staffers to pick up some large items from her house because it was “on the way” to where they were going.

In a statement, the Human Services Department said, “The Human Services Department (HSD) and Navigation Team leadership are aware of an alleged incident involving two HSD and SPD Navigation Team members. Within hours of becoming aware of the incident, HSD notified SPD, which forwarded the matter to the Office of Police Accountability to review. In addition, HSD Human Resources will be reviewing the matter to ensure all proper protocols and policies are in place.”

“The OPA will be responsible for determining if any policy violations occurred and will provide any disciplinary recommendations to Chief Best.”—SPD

Separately, an SPD spokesman said that “following Seattle Police Department policy, we have forwarded the alleged incident to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for further review. The OPA will be responsible for determining if any policy violations occurred and will provide any disciplinary recommendations to Chief Best. Until that time we will not have further comment.”

OPA has confirmed that a complaint was filed about the incident. Anne Bettesworth, OPA’s deputy director of public affairs, says the police-accountability agency is “conducting a preliminary investigation” into the incident, but said she couldn’t comment further on the open case.

Last year, the Navigation Team expanded to seven-day operations, allowing the team to post 72-hour removal notices and clear trash on weekends. The amount of trash the Navigation Team picks up each quarter is one of the performance metrics it reports to the city council; more “tonnage,” under this metric, means better performance.

HSD would not say whether Lt. Ebinger remained on the Navigation Team, and did not specify what items Ebinger had Cascadia haul away from her home.

Cascadia is one of eight companies the city contracts with to pick up garbage, bulky items, and hazardous materials at homeless encampments throughout the city; according to their most recent contract, the city pays Cascadia $80 per worker, per hour, for encampment trash removal.

The Navigation Team’s work does not include picking up personal household trash from the homes of team members. Lt. Ebinger’s alleged improper use of city encampment cleanup resources could fuel criticism that the Navigation Team is insensitive to the gravity of its work, which involves removing homeless encampments, disposing of trash and personal items, and informing encampment residents about available shelter beds. Mayor Jenny Durkan has expanded the Navigation Team every year she has been in office, often over the objections of homeless advocates, who say the team does little more than move homeless people from place to place without providing viable alternatives to sleeping outdoors.

HSD would not say whether Lt. Ebinger remained on the Navigation Team, and did not specify what items Ebinger had Cascadia haul away from her home. Cascadia did not respond to a request for comment.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported 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, ad-free site going. 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.