Tag: Lisa Herbold

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.

Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

After announcing proposals to shift 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Management, parking enforcement, and the Office of Police Accountability away from the Seattle Police Department Monday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered a fiery broadside against the city council, accusing them of proposing an ill-considered plan to slash police spending without giving any consideration to what comes next. Durkan, up for reelection next year, was in full campaign-speech mode, positioning herself as the lone adult among squalling children.

“Seven out of nine council members committed to cutting the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50 percent without a plan,” Durkan said. “This is simply not responsible. You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker.” Later, Durkan accused the council of making the “arbitrary” decision to “just cut 50 percent because that’s what people put on a placard.” Police Chief Carmen Best piled on, accusing the council of wanting to eliminate the jobs of half the police department this year.

But is that narrative accurate? And is it fair of the mayor to suggest that the council went to a demonstration and was convinced to cut half the police department by a protest sign? Here are some of the primary factual claims the mayor and police chief made to reporters and the public on Monday morning, and an assessment of their accuracy.

Claim #1: The city council has made “made the arbitrary decision to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent this year in 2020 and 50 percent next year” without any plan or consideration of the impacts such a “blunt cut” would have on the city’s ability to respond to crime and other emergency calls. “The city council decided in the space of hours … that they were going to cut the police department by 50 percent,” Durkan said Monday.

The seven council members who committed to making significant cuts to the police department all made slightly different statements, so it’s difficult to generalize about what each of them, individually, believe.

However, the one thing that was unambiguous during last week’s budget meeting was that in 2020, the council intends to cut not 50 percent of the total police department budget (a scenario Durkan has used to suggest the council would immediately shut down the entire police department as soon as the budget passes in August, since half the money for 2020 has theoretically been spent) but half of the budget that will remain for the last four months of the year, or about $65 million over the $20 million in cuts the mayor’s office has already proposed.

Council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda said as much last Wednesday, as has public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold, who also emphasized that she supports cutting the remaining police budget over a four-month period, not all at once.

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Jackie Vaughn, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, which is working with the council to come up with a detailed plan for replacing some police functions with community-based organizations, said, “This scale-down of police will happen in a phased way, [and] the corresponding scale-up of community-based organizations would happen at the same time,” also “in a phased way, starting this year to prepare us for 2021.”

And council member Dan Strauss, who has said he supports eventual cuts of around 50 percent, called it “a false narrative to say that these approaches will not work and cannot work because they are not ready to [start] today. … The worst thing we can do is give organizations the responsibility of responding [to calls for service] without giving then the time they need to be successful.”

Like Durkan, who noted that her own proposal to cut the department by a total of 5 percent this year came about “in three weeks,” the council plans to come up with a plan to reallocate police dollars on a short timeline, but the cuts themselves will be phased in starting in September.

Moreover, since cuts that will involve actual layoffs will require a separate bargaining process with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (and some of the proposed changes will require approval by the court monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the department), it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the biggest changes will be pushed back to the end of the year, possibly beyond. What the council is proposing is an acceleration, not an immediate, wholesale gutting of the department.

Claim #2: Cutting the police department means cutting cops… or perhaps an entire police precinct… or possibly no longer responding to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best have repeatedly made the alarmist claim that a 50 percent reduction to the police department’s budget would require them to “fir[e] half the police department overnight,” as Best put it Monday. At the press conference, Best said she wanted to “thank our officers for continuing to answer calls, running into the face of danger to offer aid, all while hearing a political conversation that half of them aren’t needed.” Best explained that “our budget is almost entirely personnel,” so cutting police would mean cutting an equivalent number of jobs.

The police department’s budget is actually 75 percent personnel; it has also grown tremendously over the years, usually outpacing the growth of the city budget as a whole. As Kevin Schofield of SCC Insight has demonstrated, the lion’s share of this growth has come not from adding officers but from salaries that have ballooned well beyond the average salary in Seattle, even before overtime is factored in. Simply eliminating overtime (such as the $6.3 million officers were paid for guarding the East Precinct like a citadel under siege during recent Hill protests) would reduce the department’s annual budget by more than $30 million.

As for the department being forced to “quit responding to 911 calls,” as Durkan put it, or eliminating the entire Southwest police precinct… Neither activists nor the council have proposed eliminating the 911 system. (Decriminalize Seattle’s plan, for example, calls for phasing in the replacement of 911 operators with civilian dispatchers.) And as Herbold pointed out during the city council briefing on Monday, the mayor and police chief do not have the authority to shut down a police precinct; only the council can make that kind of decision.

Claim #3: The city of Seattle has already taken the steps to “rethink policing” that other cities are just beginning to consider, so there’s no reason to make radical changes.

“We have done so much of what is being called for nationally. We’re already there,” Best said. Durkan said people pointing to Camden, NJ, which dismantled its police force seven years ago, as a model for the future of policing in America have “misunderstood” what happened there. After reassessing a costly and often violent force, Camden did “the things that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years in Seattle— deescalation training, outreach, mental health interventions.” In Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder sparked similar calls to disband the police, “all the things that they are [proposing], we have already done,” Durkan said. “The Seattle Police Department’s deescalation training is literally the model for the nation.” Continue reading “Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims”

FBI Says There Was Specific Threat Against East Precinct; Durkan Letter Dodges Protesters’ Three Demands

This morning, city council president Lorena González and public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said they were both briefed last week by police chief Carmen Best on what the chief had previously described as “credible threats” to the east police precinct in early June, and that the chief described the threats as generalized threats to government buildings in cities up and down the East Coast rather than a specific threat to bomb, burn down, or otherwise damage the East Precinct. Best cited the alleged threats in June as one of the reasons police needed to keep protesters away from the building using tear gas, pepper spray, and eventually physical barricades in the area that became known as CHOP.

“I had heard that it was general threats to all city facilities, which would obviously include the police precinct, but it would also include City Hall and sewer facilities and all other facilities owned by the city of Seattle,” González said. “These were generalized threats, as opposed to specific threats to the East Precinct, that were garnered as the result of what would seem like a generalized bulletin that was received by police chiefs of all cities, not just Seattle.”

“These were generalized threats, as opposed to specific threats to the East Precinct, that were garnered as the result of what would seem like a generalized bulletin that was received by police chiefs of all cities, not just Seattle.”—City Council president Lorena González

However, a spokesman for the FBI in Seattle said the threat was specific to the East Precinct, not a general threat against city buildings. “While I cannot get into specifics of threats, it would be accurate to report we did share intelligence regarding threats to the East Precinct,” the spokesman said. And the mayor’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, says the police chief “was provided both direct information from the Seattle FBI Special Agent in Charge confirming that, not only were government and law enforcement facilities known targets along the West Coast —including Seattle; but that the East Precinct was specifically included in these threats” as well as the West Precinct in Belltown. Formas pointed to an apparent arson attempt on June 12, when a man from Tacoma was arrested for lighting a fire outside the precinct building. That fire was quickly put out by people in the area.

“Not only were government and law enforcement facilities known targets along the West Coast [but] the East Precinct was specifically included in these threats.”—Stephanie Formas, chief of staff for Mayor Durkan

A month after the heads of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative “change teams” sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan asking her to substantively address the demands of protesters, Durkan has responded, with a letter outlining many of the same actions the mayor has highlighted in her press appearances since George Floyd’s murder sparked protests against police violence in late May. The letter from Durkan summarizes what she sees as actions she’s taken to address protesters’ demands; the fact that it does not directly respond to the demands in the letter suggests that she still does not take those demands entirely seriously, and sees incremental changes, such as additional staff for the groups that investigate police misconduct, a sufficient response to the protests that continue to rage across the city.

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The change teams are groups of city employees tasked with monitoring the implementation of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. The letter from the team leaders asked Durkan to defund the Seattle police by 50 percent, protect and expand community safety investments in Black and brown communities; stop removing homeless encampments and cut police from the city’s Navigation Team; and release all jailed protesters, among other demands. The list is less radical than the demands made by some protesters, and the effectiveness of the Change Teams is a matter of debate within the city, but their action items were similar enough to protesters’ high-level demands that the mayor’s response can serve as a proxy response to those demands.

Durkan’s letter, which is dated July 6, first listed a number of actions the city has already taken, including: “A full review by [the four police accountability authorities] of the crowd management policy,” an investigation by SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability of misconduct complaints related to the protest, a new policy (proposed and passed by the city council) banning police from covering their badge numbers with “mourning bands,” and a request that the city attorney not charge protesters arrested and jailed for minor offenses, such as obstruction and failure to disperse.

None of these action items are a direct response to the the three primary demands from protesters, which are: Defund the police by 50 percent; reinvest in Black and brown community safety; and release all protesters who have been jailed.

The mayor also described a number of future actions that have already been announced, including $100 million in still-undefined investments in BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and other people of color) communities, accelerating the transfer of several city-owned properties to community groups as part of the Equitable Development Initiative, cutting $20 million from the police department budget (a proposal that, in reality, would cut just $5 million more than the reduction Durkan had already proposed before the protests), and a greater role for “community leaders” in negotiating the next police contract.

None of these action items are a direct response to the the three primary demands from protesters, which are: Defund the police by 50 percent; reinvest in Black and brown community safety; and release all protesters who have been jailed. Continue reading “FBI Says There Was Specific Threat Against East Precinct; Durkan Letter Dodges Protesters’ Three Demands”

Council Bans Use of “Less Lethal” Weapons and Chokeholds as Cop Funding Discussion Gets Underway

Police stand by during a recent encampment removal by the Navigation Team, which is made up mostly of Seattle police officers.

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously today to ban the Seattle Police Department from owning or using so-called “less lethal” weapons such as blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray for any purpose, and, in separate legislation, to ban the use of “chokeholds,” a term that includes various methods of restraining a person by cutting off their air supply or blood flow to their brain.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, had proposed delaying the legislation barring less-lethal weapons for one week at the request of the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which asked the council for one week to review the legislation and make recommendations. The OPA and OIG, along with the Community Police Commission, are the three accountability groups charged with implementing and overseeing police reforms required by a 2012 federal consent decree.

Delaying a week would not have allowed police to resume the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other weapons against protesters, thanks to a federal court ruling from Friday, June 12, barring the use of force against peaceful protesters for two weeks. However, council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday morning that she was “at a loss to understand how any council member can play a role in delaying the passage of what is absolutely bare minimum legislation.” 

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Sawant continued to inveigh against Herbold at the full council meeting at 2pm, calling an amendment that would allow police to use non-lethal weapons under circumstances unrelated to free speech or “crowd control,” such as subduing individual suspects, “nothing less than a racist amendment [and] a betrayal of the movement and the Black community.” Earlier, Sawant called the same amendment “horrific” and suggested that it would “create giant, truck-sized loopholes that will allow these weapons to be used in virtually any situation.”

Herbold’s amendment mirrored language adopted by the Community Police Commission in 2015 and in 2020 recommending a ban on these weapons specifically for crowd control purposes. The CPC, OIG, and OPA have not weighed in on whether less-lethal weapons should be banned outright, a move Herbold—a longtime advocate for police reform—said she worries could have unintended consequences.

Herbold didn’t directly address Sawant’s accusation, but did agree to withdraw the portion of her amendment to Sawant’s bill that would have allowed less-lethal weapons to be used for purposes other than crowd control. Her amendment, which ultimately passed, added language to Sawant’s bill asking the OPA, CPC, and OIG to “make a formal recommendation to the City Council on whether the Seattle Police Department should be reauthorized to use less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal purposes” by August 15.

The council is sending the legislation to the Department of Justice, Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who presides over the consent decree, and court monitor Merrick Bobb, who was appointed to oversee the decree. The consent decree is an agreement, signed by the city in 2012, that committed the city to police reform after the federal court found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. 

In early May, Mayor Jenny Durkan asked the judge to find the city in long-term compliance with federally mandated reforms, one of the final steps before the dissolution of federal oversight SPD. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and police in Seattle responded to mostly peaceful protests with violent force. 

The discussions about less-lethal weapons are just the first phase of discussions about the size and purpose of the police department, which will continue on Wednesday at 2pm with a discussion in the council’s budget committee about proposals to defund the department and invest in community organizations that provide alternative approaches to community safety and prosperity.

 

Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City

The lens of crisis shifts so quickly now that it can be hard to keep everything in our heads at once. Last week, the city held a five-and-a-half-hour hearing on the injustice of our city’s policy toward its homeless residents, which includes pushing them from place to place if they do not “accept” a specific shelter bed on a specific day—a one-size-fits-all policy that is especially inept at responding to the conditions of vulnerable people in the middle of a nationwide public health crisis.

Over the weekend and today, and almost certainly tomorrow and the rest of the week as well, the city and nation have focused our attention on another crisis that, like the criminalization of homelessness, has racism and dehumanization at its core: Police violence against black and brown Americans.

The cameras don’t look away, even when political leaders do.

The protests against the murder of George Floyd are multifaceted and raise real questions about whether cities have the right to dictate the “proper” way to protest, as well as legitimate concerns that a movement for justice (“peaceful,” as that term is defined by law enforcement, or not) has been hijacked by outside forces on the right or left. But they also may be an inflection point (it seems far too optimistic to talk of turning points) in the debate over the role of police in Seattle and other cities, and to what extent cities should allow police to act with impunity, and unquestioned, for behavior that any rational person would consider unreasonable: Putting a knee on a young man’s neck, or spraying mace indiscriminately into a mostly peaceful crowd, or covering up badge numbers with rubber tape on the grounds that it is an inviolable “tradition.”

This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”

This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan and her police chief, Carmen Best (and fire chief Harold Scoggins, who always looks and sounds like he knows he isn’t going to be quoted at these things) stood up and intoned the same lines they have been reciting all weekend, repeated with a bit more fervor and flourish. A protest by “peaceful people” of color and allies got hijacked by outside forces, “young white men,” probably right-wing or perhaps left-wing, “bent on destruction and chaos,” with “nothing but ill intent” in their hearts. (The phrase “ill intent” was repeated so often that it started to sound more like a mantra than a talking point.) The nightly curfews, initially imposed with less than 15 minutes’ notice, are meant to “take the lawful people off the street” and are necessary, night after night, to “protect public health and safety.” Looting, rioting, fighting back when police throw tear gas canisters and flash bangs indiscriminately into crowds: “This is not what people trying to express their opinions do,” Best said. “This is what criminals do. So we have to differentiate between the two.”

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As the protests have stretched into their second week, the rhetoric from the mayor’s office and the police department has grown more pitched and baroque. This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”

Mourning bands, black bands that many officers placed over their badge numbers, making them harder to identify, had evolved from something people might not be aware of (“Google it,” Durkan said this weekend, helpfully spelling it out: “M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G bands”) to a tradition so hallowed and ingrained that it was actually offensive for the public to suggest that concealing badge numbers during a protest about police accountability might send the wrong message. Durkan, exasperated, insisted, “There was no attempt by anyone to cover badge numbers” and called the very existence of badge numbers on officers’ badges “a fallback and in some ways an unnecessary redundancy” to the first-initial, last name identification on officers’ name tags.

Herbold, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, was hardly the only council member who raised concerns about the behavior of police this week, or who will be demanding answers from the mayor and police chief about why police acted with such apparent indiscretion during protests against police violence. (One reasonable answer might be that they felt empowered to do so.)

Durkan even expressed surprise when a reporter asked about reports (described, videotaped and posted on social media by hundreds of witnesses for anyone to see) that officers had fired tear gas, flash grenades, and pepper spray indiscriminately into crowds that were mostly peaceful, saying that she would follow up with city council member Lisa Herbold, who had spoken earlier in the day about witnessing many such instances herself over the weekend. “I don’t know the facts of the case that she’s indicating… but we’ll reach out to the council member to find out what she’s concerned about,” Durkan said. Continue reading “Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City”

Council Vote Allows Stalled Housing Projects to Move Forward Without Usual Lengthy Review

Not Seattle.

After more weeks of debate than any other piece of emergency legislation to come out of the COVID crisis so far, the Seattle City Council voted this morning to ease the requirement that certain developments go through the lengthy full design review process, allowing dozens of buildings that were already in the process pipeline to continue moving forward. The legislation died last week for lack of seven votes (the requirement for emergency legislation) but was brought back this afternoon with a new amendment from council member Tammy Morales, who initially voted against the bill on the li grounds that it would expedite gentrification in historic districts like the Chinatown/International District and the Central District.

Public comment, which returned last week, was split between people who insisted that streamlining design review, even for a few months, would lead to the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods and the decimation of urban forests, and those who argued that building housing was critical to the city’s recovery. Several speakers who opposed the bill said that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections “can’t be trusted” and suggested that city land-use bureaucrats were hellbent on scraping single-family lots of trees and vegetation to build dense, “unaffordable buildings” in the middle of their single-family neighborhoods.

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Last week, Morales proposed an amendment that would have eliminated a provision allowing city staff, rather than historic district and landmark review boards, to approve changes in historic districts. That amendment failed, and Morales voted against the legislation, along with Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen. This time, she came back with a more narrowly tailored amendment specifically prohibiting any online meetings of the city’s International [District] Special Review District on the grounds that the community includes many people without access to technology and translation services. That amendment passed, and Morales voted for the final bill, calling her vote “my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.”

Council member Andrew Lewis proposed an amendment, which failed to pass, that would have halted work on three projects that are participating in the city’s Living Building pilot program by requiring them to continue through the full design review process. “Living buildings” get some extra height and density in exchange for being built to high environmental standards, but like other buildings that receive height bonuses, they tend to be controversial among traditional neighborhood groups. Lewis said he had heard concerns from “the community” that allowing these projects to shift to administrative design review, which doesn’t require in-person meetings but does allow public feedback, would lead to inferior buildings. The amendment failed despite an assist from Herbold, who encouraged Lewis to reiterate his reasons for believing that projects shouldn’t shift from full design review to a less process-y process midstream.

“This will be my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.” — Council member Tammy Morales

And what about Herbold, who voted against the bill last week after her own amendment, which would have eliminated a provision that exempts affordable housing from design review for six months, failed? City rules prohibited her from bringing up the same amendment again (as they did with Morales’ unsuccessful changes), and she voted against the bill a second time, arguing that the affordable-housing exemption violates Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting cities from considering legislation that is unrelated to the COVID emergency. Council president Lorena Gonzalez, who said she had consulted on this question extensively with the city clerk and city attorney’s office, disagreed, and the legislation passed 7-2.

The upshot of all this is actually more significant than the last few weeks’ arcane finagling suggest. Dozens of projects, including affordable housing projects, have been on hold since Inslee’s order halted in-person public meetings, putting a critical economic sector in a holding pattern until the city decided what to do. Now, and for the next six months, these projects can get back underway. As Queen Anne Community Council board member Justin Allegro put it during public comment, “We don’t want to look back and regret that we missed out on huousing opportunities now just because we weren’t willing to trust our city employee experts to make design review decisions for the next few months.”

Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer”

The city is paying $35,000 apiece for six portable toilet sites, the deputy mayor revealed Wednesday.

Human shit clinging sliding down the street and squishing under a nonprofit director’s shoe as she walked to her car in Pioneer Square. Women bleeding through their clothes because they lack menstrual supplies and a place to get clean. Street-level social service workers forced to pee in alleys because all the restrooms are locked.

These are some of the stories front-line workers told the city council on Wednesday during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee. Committee chair Andrew Lewis called the meeting in response to the lack of clean, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to use the restroom and wash their hands during the COVID crisis—a shortage that, as I first reported,  has contributed to an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ballard.

Dawn Whitson, an outreach worker for REACH – Evergreen Treatment Services who works in Georgetown, said she has resorted to handing out toilet paper to homeless people in the area, because the restroom at the Georgetown Playfield—which she said is open only sporadically—often lacks both toilet paper and soap. “I actually have been out in the field and have had to use the restroom in several different alleys myself” since all the businesses have closed, Whitson said.

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As streets, parks, and playfields have become restrooms of last resort, Whitson said the city has stopped talking to social service providers about whether and when more portable toilets and accessible hand-washing stations are coming. “We’ve managed to develop a field hospital [in CenturyLink Field], and we haven’t been able to get any port-a-potties and we haven’t been able to get any answers,” she said. “I have pointedly asked, ‘Who do we need to call to express our concerns, and I was pretty much stonewalled and told that there was no one I could speak to.”

Casey Sixkiller, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, launched into his prewritten presentation not by responding to the advocates’ concerns, but by praising Human Services Department employees for “putting their lives at risk” to stand up hygiene stations and asserting that “at least 127” park restrooms are currently open.

The city plans to add eight more port-a-potties to the six locations it announced last week, Sixkiller said, but it would be prohibitively expensive to add many more. Each portable toilet, he said, costs $35,000 a month, a price tag that some council members said sounded like price gouging to them. Honey Bucket does not have an exact price list on its website. In 2017, Willamette Week in Portland reported that the company’s prices had skyrocketed during the solar eclipse—from $140 a week to a whopping $650 per unit.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

Sixkiller said he didn’t “know that it’s price gouging” for Honey Bucket to charge what the “market conditions” will allow. “We are competing with everybody else for those resources,” Sixkiller said. “It’s just simple supply and demand.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Council president Lorena Gonzalez said whatever the price, “when we are talking about 14 toilets”—the six existing sites, plus eight new ones—”for upwards of 6,000 people, I just feel like we aren’t having a conversation based in reality in terms of what the actual need is.” Continue reading “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer””

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

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

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

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.

Evening Crank Part 1: Hunker Down Edition

Cracks visible in the girders supporting the West Seattle Bridge. SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe says the discolored areas visible around the damage are “a result of the preventive maintenance we’ve done over the past few years, so don’t in and of themselves illustrate all of the issues we are concerned about right now.”

1. How long has the COVID-19 epidemic been going on? Only six years, you say? Well, in the words of Gov. Jay Inslee, hunker down…

It was a big news day, and not just because Gov. Jay Inslee finally told us all to go to our rooms and not come out until he said so. (Find a list of “essential” businesses that will stay open, which includes everything from veterinarians to food banks to recreational pot stores, here). Earlier in the day, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the high West Seattle Bridge will be completely closed to traffic until further notice, due to cracks in the concrete girders that support the bridge’s weight. Durkan said the new discoveries mean that the bridge “cannot safely support vehicular traffic.”

During a press conference conducted via Skype, Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe said the closure could last weeks or months. Zimbabwe said there hadn’t been a single incident or catastrophic event that led to the new damage; rather, crews inspecting the bridge last night discovered that cracks in the girders that had already allowed “incursions” of water and air had grown dramatically wider. Most of the weight of the bridge—about 80 percent—consists of the bridge itself, but heavier vehicles, and more of them, may have contributed to the damage, Zimbabwe said.

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.

Drivers hoping to use the lower West Seattle bridge are out of luck; the secondary bridge will be open only to first responders, transit, and freight. People who choose to commute by car will have to go far afield of their usual routes, using West Marginal Way, First Ave. S., or SR 509 to get off the peninsula.

The announcement was so sudden that the two city council members who live in West Seattle, Lisa Herbold (District 1) and Lorena Gonzalez (Position 9) found out about the closure just a few hours before the public did. (The same was true of King County Council member Joe McDermott, who said in an email to constituents  this evening that he just found out about the closure “this afternoon.”) Mayor Durkan did not specify exactly why the closure had to happen with so little notice.

In a statement, Herbold, who represents West Seattle, questioned the decision to completely shut down the lower bridge to private auto traffic, saying she wanted  to know “how soon it can be opened for traffic given lower traffic volumes in Seattle” because of the COVID-19 epidemic and stay-at-home order. “My office has requested that SDOT appeal to the Coast Guard to make fewer bridge openings of the lower level bridge to allow for more buses and cars to cross, like they did in early 2019 when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed and the SR99 tunnel was not yet open.”

A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.”

2. At a city council briefing this morning, Position 8 city council member Teresa Mosqueda expressed optimism that “downtown boutique hotels” would soon begin offering rooms to people who were healthy but needed to self-isolate because they are members of a vulnerable group. “I really want to thank some of the hotel owners, especially some of the downtown boutique hotel owners,” for offering to help house people impacted by the COVID epidemic, Mosqueda said.

Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district (7) includes downtown, also said he hoped that downtown hotels would be able to offer rooms “to get people off the street and get people inside quickly on a temporary basis,” an arrangement that could also “give a boon to our struggling hospitality industry that has suffered from a massive dropoff in tourism” because of COVID-19. Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and Palladian hotels downtown, has reportedly been in contact with city about providing rooms for this purpose.

The city’s Office of Labor Standards has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

However, it was unclear Monday whether any hotels had actually stepped up and offered rooms, either for people experiencing homelessness or for first responders and others who need to be isolated because of potential COVID-19 exposure. A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.” The spokeswoman, Brandyn Hull, added that the hotels “have offered to support the city with very low rates” for first responders, medical workers, and representatives of the CDC.

3. After getting reports that restaurants and other businesses that had to lay off workers during the COVID crisis had failed to pay employees for time they’d already worked, I contacted the city’s Office of Labor Standards to see what recourse people in this situation might have. After initially writing that “All media inquires must go through the Mayor’s office,” they got back to me with more specific responses  this morning.

If you’ve been laid off and your employer did not pay you for time you worked—for example, if your boss told you they couldn’t pay your last paycheck—that “may be considered administrative wage theft,” so try contacting OLS or the state Department of Labor and Industries to see if they can resolve it. If you didn’t get paid for vacation or sick time you accrued, you’re probably out of luck, unless you can prove that getting paid out was a condition of your employment.

OLS has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

 

“Eastlake Is Moving Forward,” Herbold to Pay Ethics Fine, and an Impasse on LEAD

1. During a Monday-morning “celebration” of the 14 miles of new bike infrastructure the city built last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said that she was committed to building a protected bike lane on Eastlake Ave. a, rather than acceding to demands from neighborhood activists that the city ditch the bike lane for an unspecified neighborhood greenway somewhere else. “We need that bike lane,”  Durkan said. “We can’t have a connected [route] if people can’t get from the north end to downtown Seattle. … Eastlake is moving forward.”

The bike lane is included in plans for the Roosevelt RapidRide bus route that will replace King County Metro’s Route 70 bus; the Seattle Department of Transportation released an environmental assessment of the proposal last month. Neighborhood activists have protested that the bike lane will require the removal of parking along Eastlake, and city council member Alex Pedersen said last week that he would prefer to have cyclists use unspecified parallel “neighborhood greenways” for at least some of the route.

Neither Durkan nor SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe would commit to a specific timeline to complete the most contentious portion of the center city bike network—a long-delayed protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue. Durkan decided to press pause on the bike lane in anticipation of “mega traffic” downtown during demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and a number of other major construction projects downtown. Although Carmageddon failed, once again, to materialize, the Fourth Avenue bike lane remains delayed until 2021, and was scaled back last year from a two-way protected on the east side of the street to a one-way northbound lane on the west side, in the same spot as an existing unprotected lane.

Vicky Clarke, the policy director of Cascade Bicycle Club, made a point of mentioning “gaps in the system” repeatedly in her remarks, and noted pointedly that bike advocates are looking forward to the city “funding and building a two-way bike lane on Fourth Avenue next year.”

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2.City council member Lisa Herbold will pay a $500 fine for violating the city’s ethics code when she contacted Police Chief Carmen Best over a trailer that was parked in front of her house last year, on the grounds that she was using, or appeared to be using, her elected position for “private benefit” or a non-city purpose. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will take up  the case at its meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

The case stems from an incident last year in which KIRO radio host Dori Monson and conservative activist Ari Hoffman had encouraged listeners of Monson’s show to buy up derelict RVs and park them in front of council members’ houses to protest the presence of “drug RVs” in Seattle. When a trailer showed up in front of Herbold’s home in West Seattle, Monson assumed someone had taken him up on his idea, and encouraged listeners to show up and join the “protest.”

In response to the trailer and the crowd of people outside her home, Herbold texted police chief Carmen Best and asked her to look into whether the U-Haul that brought the RV to her street had been rented by Hoffman and, if so, to consider charging Hoffman with theft. Best declined to investigate and suggested that Herbold call SPD’s non-emergency number.

“If someone has reported a trailer stolen, one has been delivered to the street in front of my house,” Herbold wrote. “I’m not complaining, I want to ensure the property is returned to its owner.” In a followup, Herbold continued, “I’m not asking you to move it. Ari [Hoffman] will twist that as [a] special SPD response for a Councilmember. I would like to find out if 1. anyone has reported it stolen, 2. Give you the license plate number of the uhaul so you can confirm from Uhaul that Ari rented the uhaul & towed it there and you can consider whether it’s appropriate to charge him with theft.”

As it turned out, the trailer was owned by a homeless woman and her family, who had planned to tow it away later that week and did not know that they had parked it near a council member’s house. They returned to the trailer to find that random people, including a reporter for KIRO Radio, had entered the trailer and rummaged through it without permission, and that the outside of the trailer had been covered in graffiti, including the words “DORI MONSON FOR PRESIDENT” across one side. The woman who owned the trailer, who was pregnant, was reportedly threatened with a knife by one of the “protesters.”

Monson never apologized for encouraging his listeners to show up and vandalize the trailer (an act he called “pretty great!!” on Twitter), though he did put give the woman and her family a “hunski” from his money clip on the air the following day. The reporter who entered the trailer, Carolyn Ossario, was reportedly fired over the stunt.

3. Last week, the members of the city council’s public safety committee, led by Herbold, sent a letter to Mayor Durkan asking her to release the full $3.5 million allocated in the city’s 2020 budget for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program by March 1, and to affirm that LEAD—which offers alternatives to arrest for people suspected of committing low-level crimes—is a crime prevention program, not a homelessness program. The letter requested a response no later than last Friday.

Durkan’s office did get back to Herbold’s office on Friday, but they did not agree to fully fund LEAD by March, and they had no response to the committee’s request that the mayor acknowledge that LEAD is not a homelessness program. Supporters of LEAD consider this an important distinction, because the city requires homeless services to focus on moving clients into permanent housing, whereas LEAD is focused on keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

Last year, the council added $3.5 million to LEAD’s budget in an effort to reduce caseloads and allow the program to take on new clients. Instead, Durkan reduced LEAD’s approved budget to the $2.6 million she had proposed in her initial budget, and made the rest of the funding contingent on the findings of a consultant hired to review and craft new performance metrics for the program. As a result, LEAD has delayed expansion plans and is considering cutbacks. A compromise plan the mayor’s office proposed last week would provide enough funding for LEAD to reduce caseloads and take care of a backlog of low-priority cases, but program director Lisa Daugaard says this defeats the purpose of the program, which is to reduce crime by working with individuals who have the greatest impact on neighborhoods.

The response from the mayor’s office is signed by Tess Colby, Durkan’s homelessness advisor. On the issue of funding, Colby wrote: “The split of the contract budget into two phases will not impede LEAD’s ability to staff in accordance with its needs. LEAD is not proposing to hire 52 case managers in the first quarter of 2020, but rather over the course of the year. I note this because the budget we have requested from LEAD will cover expenses associated with the addition of new case managers to right-size their case management ratios. This is consistent with LEAD’s plan to grow in response to referrals and intakes. Thus, the pace of hiring will not be slowed during the first phase of the contract.”

Daugaard said LEAD has no plans to expand until they know they can actually retain the new case managers for the rest of the year; it makes no sense, she told me, to hire people and start ramping up their client base now if the funding might run out in the middle of the year. For now, it seems that the council, LEAD, and the mayor are at an impasse: Durkan says LEAD can proceed as normal, LEAD says they can’t move forward without a guarantee of funding, and the council can do little except register their protest, since the mayor holds the purse strings.