Tag: Mayor Murray

“Willing to Lose Every Single Penny”: Mayor Doubles Down on Seattle’s Sanctuary Status

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At a hastily called press conference Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray declared he was “willing to lose every single penny” of federal funding that flows to Seattle in order to protect undocumented immigrants and refugees living in the city. Murray’s remarks came after President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring that the federal government would withhold all federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities”—a catchall term for cities, like Seattle, that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agents by handing undocumented immigrants over for deportation.

Calling January 27, 2017 “the darkest day in immigration history since the internment of Japanese-Americans,” Murray said, “We will not, as we did in World War II, allow our police to become deputies of the federal government and round up immigrants in this city.” The city argues that any federal order requiring SPD to ask demand detainees’ immigration status would violate the 10th Amendment, which states that the federal government can’t force states to enforce any federal law.

The city stands to lose as much as $85 million in federal funding if Trump makes good on his threat and pulls every federal grant the city receives. In that scenario, the department that would be hardest hit is the Human Services Department, followed by the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Office of Housing. Anticipating that worst-case scenario, Murray said, he has asked every department to “reprioritize” its budget for a post-federal-funding future; specifically, he said, “I’m going to give them a number and ask them to cut their budget to that number.” When I asked whether he would order all departments to cut a certain percentage from their budgets, as previous mayors have done when economic downturns necessitated major cuts, Murray said, “I need more than a couple of hours [after the executive order was released] to answer your question.”

Turning to legal remedies, Murray said the city “is prepared to take any legal avenues that we need to to ensure that immigrants, regardless of their documentation, remain in this city and that the United States Constitution is not violated.” He also suggested what form that legal action might take, noting that the federal government is supposed to prove there is a “nexus” between any funds they withhold and their reason for withholding it. That’s a potentially risky move, though, because it could leave grants the Seattle Police Department receives through the Department of Justice especially vulnerable to cuts, since police would be the ones refusing to follow federal orders to turn undocumented immigrants over to federal agents.

img_0652City attorney Pete Holmes, who showed up to the press conference with a copy of the Constitution tucked in his inside jacket pocket, said he found it ironic that a “law and order” administration would specifically target funding for police. “[Federal] law enforcement funds help increase the security of the country,” Holmes told me before the press conference. “It’s difficult to match up. The prescribed remedies do exactly the opposite.”

Holmes said he’s “asking all the departments to identify all grants and federal funding” but declined to specify which departments stood to lose the most. “I’d rather not engage in shadowboxing these general assertions about grants,” he said. “I’d rather drill down on the specifics.”

 

Lisa Daugaard, head of the Public Defender Association, which works on police reform was in the audience during the mayor’s press conference. Afterward, she suggested another potential avenue for legal action in the fact that the executive order gives the US attorney general “general, limitless jurisdiction” to define which cities are “sanctuary cities” and punish them accordingly. There’s no official definition of a “sanctuary city,” but the Trump Administration appears to be targeting large cities whose voters did not support him, such as New York and Chicago. By defining sanctuary cities “arbitrarily,” Daugaard argues, Trump and his attorney general are  overstepping their authority under federal law and opening themselves up to a legal challenge by local jurisdictions.

“Federal agencies, and the attorney general as an agency, can’t arbitrarily choose to take action or not take action because they don’t like the lawful choices cities make,” Daugaard says. “The problem with the executive order is it gives the attorney general limitless authority, without any standards, to make arbitrary decisions about who loses federal funding. That’s the poison pill.”

Daugaard holds out hope—if you can call it that—that Trump will be forced to back down on enforcing the order when his own supporters in the hundreds of jurisdictions that have declared themselves sanctuary cities or counties start feeling the impact the loss of millions of federal dollars will have on their communities. “It’s unlawful, but it’s also untenable,” Daugaard says. “It will be devastating to hundreds of cities and counties, which will lead to a huge loss of support and momentum” for the administration.

Some Questions for the City About its Progress on Homelessness

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After spending two hours listening to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray discuss homelessness with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at Seattle U last week, I came away impressed by Murray’s obvious evolution on some key issues related homelessness, including encampment sweeps, drug addiction, and the need for shelter that accommodates substance users.

After watching several of Murray’s department heads brief the council on the progress the city is making on several key issues related to homelessness, including encampment sweeps, needle disposal, and shelter that accommodates substance users, I just came away with a lot of questions.

Murray, who was joined onstage by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, journalist Joni Balter, and SU Master of Public Administration Director Larry Hubbell, expressed frustration at the state and federal government for “fail[ing] to come forward” to supplement the tens of millions the city spends on homelessness every year, and expressed frustration at the kind of complaints he hears from Seattle residents about homeless people in their neighborhoods. “I have heard from so many people that they know exactly who the homeless are and what their problem is and how to solve it,” Murray said. “The conversation [in Seattle] is so polarized, it worries me about our ability to [be a] model for our nation for how you deal with issues of poverty and inequality, and in particular, homelessness.”

Two days later, at a meeting of the council’s human services committee, representatives from several city departments delivered an update on the city’s progress toward building low-barrier shelters and dealing with unauthorized encampments that illustrated some of the challenges Murray was talking about. A 24/7 low-barrier shelter that was supposed to open last month still lacks a location and opening date; new, more humane encampment cleanup protocols remain a work in progress; and the city’s most visible response to the heroin epidemic so far has been the wholly inadequate placement of six needle collection boxes around the city.

Officials from the Human Services Department, Seattle Public Utilities, Finance and Administrative Services, and Murray’s office described the progress they’ve made responding to neighbors’ complaints about trash and needles, touting, among other initiatives, an “on-call” needle response system to ensure that when a neighbor calls to report a needle on public property, SPU will arrive to dispose of the needle within 24 hours. They also touted the work they’ve done to expedite trash pickup in and around encampments, which SPU deputy director Ken Snipes said has led neighbors to say things like “This is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it.”

But they left many questions unanswered—about the schedule for delayed initiatives, about what the city is doing to ensure that it doesn’t discard important belongings when it sweeps occupied encampments, and about what the city plans to do to improve safety not just for neighborhood residents upset by needles, but for people shooting up on park benches and in public bathrooms. Here are a few of the questions I would like to have heard Murray’s staffers address.

Why can’t the city force the state to pick up garbage on state-owned property?

As council member Tim Burgess pointed out, despite SPU’s best efforts to clean up trash and provide Dumpsters around encampments, there are still huge piles of trash and debris under bridges and beside overpasses around the city. “It’s frustrating that we have this accumulation of garbage and trash all over Seattle. … It’s not healthy, it’s not good for the city, and it certainly sends the wrong signals to the taxpayers as to how we spend their money,” Burgess said. Typically, the city responds to questions about trash under bridges by pointing out that most of those sites are owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and that was Snipes’ response yesterday, but Burgess wasn’t having it. “I’ve been hearing this for years: ‘Well, that’s WSDOT property,’  therefore we think we’re somehow paralyzed and can’t act.” If WSDOT won’t clean up messes on its property, Burgess said, then “we should issue citations to WSDOT.  It’s inside the city of Seattle. Our ordinances apply. Why do we take so long?”

Snipes’ response: A familiar refrain. “We’re reaching out and we’ve connected with them and we’re making some headway on a plan to address those areas.

Now that the Seattle Office for Civil Rights no longer oversees each encampment sweep, what is the city doing to ensure that the civil rights of people living outdoors aren’t being violated? 

Back in December, city council members learned that under the mayor’s (still unreleased but, according to Potter, “imminent”) new protocols for encampment sweeps, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights would no longer be monitoring encampment removals and making sure workers were complying with rules about notice and disposal of people’s possessions. A Seattle Times report last month detailed many apparent violations of existing protocols for encampment removal, and described several sweeps that were shut down after SOCR monitors observed violations of the rules.

In the future, FAS director Chris Potter said, SOCR will “continue to monitor the [sweeps] in an auditing capacity—they’ll come out in the field from time to time, and have access, like everyone else to all the information [about specific sweeps] on our external website,” including photos of specific encampments before and after the city enters, conditions at sites chosen for sweeps, and a general sense of what happened to the people living there. (When council member Sally Bagshaw asked specifically if the city’s new encampment information website would include details about outcomes for the individual people displaced by sweeps, Potter demurred, saying only that there would be a “ramp-up period” to get the new protocols in place before the city could attempt to provide more detailed information about the people being swept up in the sweeps.)

The departments’ vague answers about what role the civil rights office will play in monitoring encampment sweeps in the future prompted council member Mike O’Brien to say, “It is going to require a certain level of independence [for the civil rights office] and a willingness to highlight where there’s room to improvement.

“These departments all report to the mayor, and so—not to put words in the mayor’s mouth, but none of us want to be embarrassed. So I want to make sure that the civil rights department will be able to be somewhat independent and make clear statements when the city makes mistakes.”

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Why doesn’t the city put sharps containers in more public places, particularly places that are actually convenient to injection-drug users?

It’s been three months since the mayor announced plans to place ten new needle-disposal boxes around the city. To date, the city has added a total of six new sharps containers, distributed across the city from Mineral Springs Park in far North Seattle to the center median at 27th and Cheasty in Beacon Hill. This model requires injection-drug users (who, let’s be clear, cluster in places like Ballard, Capitol Hill, and Belltown that are nowhere near the new disposal sites) to schlep to one of the six designated locations to dispose of dirty needles. If the goal is to get drug users to stop leaving their needles in restroom trash cans and public parks, wouldn’t it make more sense to make sharps containers ubiquitous, at least in places (like libraries and parks) where drug users tend to congregate?

Granted, the sharps containers are getting used—Snipes said the  SPU contractors who pick up the boxes report that they’re “almost full”—but the demand for safe disposal sites clearly exceeds the supply. (For example, Snipes said SPU’s rapid-response needle team had picked up 1,243 individual needles over the last two months.)  On balance, it seems that giving drug users an easy way to safely dispose of needles on site would be a saner approach than the current model, which is to deny users a place to dispose of sharps and then deploy an army of on-call SPU workers to drive  around the city plucking individual needles off the ground.

But seriously, what’s the holdup with the Navigation Center?

The Navigation Center—a 24/7 low-barrier shelter that will not bar people for being intoxicated or high and will allow partners, possessions, and pets—was supposed to open in December. A month later, the city has yet to even announce where the center will be, and officials at the table Thursday cited unspecified ongoing “negotiations” as the reason for the holdup. “I won’t be able to say when the site negotiations will be complete, nor do I have a timeline about when that site will be open,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said. “What I did want to share today is that we’re working with [the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which will run the Navigation Center] to set up some interim services” to replicate the services that will be centralized at the Navigation Center.

Part of the problem with providing people access to a bunch of services while they’re still living on the streets, as I reported earlier this month, is that it’s much harder to navigate a complicated system when you’re living out of a shopping cart and fighting every day for physical survival. Having DESC serve as a clearinghouse for services may be a step in the right direction, but it’s a long way from the Navigation Center model, which recognizes that people need a sense of stability before they can start jumping through the hoops that lead to housing.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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The Future of Seattle’s Shelter System is in San Francisco

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San Francisco’s Navigation Center for the homeless is a promising model for Seattle—if the city decides to really embrace it.

Last month, the Seattle Human Services Department dropped several pieces of bad news in the laps of the city council’s human services committee: First, the department had failed to locate sites for all four of the sanctioned encampments Mayor Ed Murray promised as part of his “Bridging the Gap” proposal to shelter some of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, now several thousand strong. Second, ongoing sweeps of unauthorized encampments will no longer be monitored by the city’s Office of Civil Rights, which was charged with overseeing encampment removals and making sure workers comply with rules about notice and disposal of people’s tents and other possessions. And third, a planned low-barrier shelter known as the Navigation Center, to be operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, won’t open on schedule due to trouble locating an acceptable site for the facility. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said at last month’s meeting.

The Navigation Center delay was a blow to advocates who’ve argued that Seattle needs shelter options that serve the hardest to house among the city’s growing homeless population—those who don’t use regular shelters because they have one or more of the “three P’s”—pets, partners, and possessions, which aren’t allowed in traditional shelters—or because they’ve been scared away by bad experiences in the shelter system.  Add to those three disqualifiers a fourth “P”—problems. Shelters don’t work well for people in acute mental distress, people who happen to be drunk or high, or people whose mental or emotional troubles make it difficult for them to stay in close quarters with hundreds of other people.

It’s a fairly safe bet that the city will announce the Navigation Center site sometime in January—too late to help those stuck sleeping outside in subzero temperatures during the first half of this unusually cold winter, but in time for Murray to attend the opening before his reelection campaign begins in earnest. But what do city officials really mean when they talk about “low-barrier” shelter, anyway—and what will make the Navigation Center different from other shelters DESC operates, like the Morrison Hotel downtown, which takes people in any condition on a first-come, first-served basis?

To help answer those questions, I headed south to San Francisco, where the original Navigation Center opened in the Mission District in March 2015. (The city has since opened another Navigation Center, and is working on a third; all three are temporary facilities on public land slated for eventual redevelopment.) Located in the middle of a a dreary street of Mission Street populated largely by street kids and older people just sort of hanging around, the Navigation Center stands out for its clean sidewalk, airy entryway, and woodsy, modern exterior. It looks more like the entrance to a pricey new condo building than a shelter—if that condo building  was flanked by two portable buildings painted institutional yellow, and fronted by a short but official-looking sturdy iron fence.

“It’s hard to explain that it’s never looked so good [on the street outside], but there it is,” Sam Dodge tells me as we walk through the center. Dodge is the deputy director of San Francisco’s new Department of Homelessness, and he—along with John Ouertani, the site manager—is one of the chief evangelists for the Navigation Center model. “This property is open 24 hours and is very low-threshold,” Ouertani says. “There are a few rules, but the guests pretty much come in and out as they please.” As we’re talking, a new guest comes in—a skinny young man, probably 30, staggering under some unseen weight, his head parallel to the dusty ground. A case worker steers him toward his dorm, urging him to get some sleep.

Physically, the center consists of several low portable buildings—an admissions center, a dining hall/TV room, an ADA-accessible building with showers, restrooms, and free laundry facilities, and five dorms—clustered around a central courtyard. The layout gives clients (the Navigation Center calls them “guests”) more physical room than a traditional shelter, to walk around, play with their pets—and sleep. The dorms themselves house a maximum of 15 people each, a far cry from the hundreds of bunk beds that crowd a typical shelter, and some beds are pushed together in pairs, to accommodate couples who want to sleep together. Meals are available all day and night in the common building, and showers are open 24/7, to give people a sense of autonomy and to differentiate the center from other institutional living situations that guests may have encountered and found unwelcoming or traumatic in the past.nav-center-portables

“A lot of people [the Navigation Center serves] haven’t had contact with a shelter for a very long time, but they have past memories of shelter or they’ve heard rumors on the street, and that’s kept them out,” Dodge says. “I think it’s really important that we’re telegraphing to people that ‘You are going to make this amazing life change, and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of appointments and all this stuff, but we’re here to make it easy for you, and we want to make a tranquil environment where you can rest when you need to rest, and you can eat when you need to eat, and stay focused on the goal of ending your homelessness.” In contrast, traditional shelters typically serve meals, if they serve meals at all, at standard times, clear out sleeping areas during the day, and are anything but tranquil.

DESC director Daniel Malone says that during one of his visits to the San Francisco Navigation Center, he and his colleagues witnesses a client become “really agitated about something,” yelling and pacing around frantically. What they noticed, he says, is that the man “was basically able to blow off some steam—the physical environment there seemed to allow for him to have that moment, or that event, without really significantly affecting anybody else. And some of us from DESC observed that and immediately made the connection that if that had happened in the DESC shelter—and things like that happen in the DESC shelter all the time—he would have had a different reception, because a lot of people would have been around and wouldn’t have had the patience for that happening.

“It helped some of us feel more confident that there could be some real differences by going this route of creating a place where we weren’t just trying to squeeze in as many people as humanly possible.”

Another key difference between the Navigation Center and a traditional shelter is that the Navigation Center is truly low-barrier, welcoming people who have partners, pets, possessions—and problems. Ouertani estimates that at any given time, there are a dozen or more dogs on the property—many of them pit bulls—and says that as long as they’re vaccinated, on a leash, and don’t attack people or other dogs, they can stay. “We had about 17 pets come in within the first month and an half after we first opened up, and that’s pretty much what dictated where the guests went, because you can’t put 10 pit bulls in one dorm,” Ouertani said. People are also allowed to bring large possessions, like shopping carts, bikes, and what Dodge calls “survival stuff from the street.” (Weapons are taken at the door and stored for clients to retrieve later.) And they’re allowed to stay with partners‚ unlike typical shelters that require couples to split. (Dodge says there have been times when women, for example, or transgender people have said they felt unsafe sleeping in coed dorms, and the Navigation Center has accommodated them by making one of the five dorms single-gender). Finally, they’re allowed to stay at the center even if they’re  under the influence of drugs or alcohol—or, in most cases, even if they consume drugs or alcohol at the center. “We’re not so much focused on the drugs and alcohol,” Dodge says, “because we know those are almost a given. So if you get caught using on the property, it does not mean that you are asked to leave. That’s our time to outreach to you.”

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Clients can’t just walk in to the Navigation Center, nor will they be able to do so in Seattle. Instead, the center seeks out new clients at encampments (often right before announced raids by San Francisco city authorities) and through groups serving homeless people from marginalized communities. “One of our [initial] ideas was that we could go and just take a whole encampment and bring them inside,” Dodge said. “And then we saw from some of our data that in taking the whole encampment, we started to preference a younger, whiter group that felt comfortable in places of conflict, so then we started to say, ‘Let’s select for some racial equity and try to balance those numbers out a little bit.'” Like the city of Seattle, San Francisco uses a race and social justice lens when designing and funding city programs. “And then we went to the Haight Ashbury [neighborhood] and worked with some of the groups up there, and said, ‘Let’s work with a younger cohort. Let’s try to preference transgender people who seem to feel unsafe in a lot of our shelter system.'” The result is a population that goes through demographic changes based on the center’s current outreach priorities. f the population looks a little too young and white, they can tweak their outreach to bring in more Latino immigrants; if it’s skewing heavily toward straight, older couples, the center can increase outreach to groups that serve LGBTQ youth.

“Part of the model is being able to experiment and try new things and collect data and analyze it and experiment again,” Dodge says.

One reason  the original Navigation Center has been so free to experiment is that it’s funded largely by private dollars, through a no-strings-attached grant from an anonymous wealthy donor; Seattle’s Navigation Center will be funded by a combination of state and local dollars.

Daniel Malone, the DESC director, says his group plans to emulate the experimental spirit of the San Francisco Navigation Center, but notes that the city will choose clients based on its own set of criteria, which will in turn be dictated, to some extent, by federal priorities. “Essentially, folks are going to [come] to us after being selected by the Human Services Department,” Malone says. Johnson, the HSD deputy director, says Navigation Center clients will be chosen by outreach workers who will “engage with an unsheltered person or couple to try to tease out what that couple might need to move from living outside to living inside”; if it seems like they’ve rejected other shelter options because of barriers like restrictions on partners and pets, “then the Navigation Center comes into play.”

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Johnson says Seattle’s Navigation Center, when it opens, will still embrace “the core themes that hold true at the San Francisco Navigation Center,” but it will be uniquely Seattle.”  For example, Johnson says, people will be expected to move out of the center, and into more stable (if not permanent) housing within 30 days—an ambitious goal given that, also according to Johnson, the average shelter stay in King County is 200 days. Johnson says the San Francisco Navigation Center has “changed their model” to move people through the center in 30 days, but Dodge says that for those who are seeking stable housing (as opposed to shelter or treatment), moving through the system takes longer, about 90 days on average.

San Francisco’s Navigation Center has moved nearly 300 people into more stable housing since it opened in 2015, which is quite a feat—especially when you consider that many people enter the center with few or no prior connections to the city’s homeless “system.” That’s another thing that’s different about the Navigation Center—instead of just providing phone numbers and addresses for service providers and sending clients on their way, the center provides each client with an on-site case manager who helps them make appointments and actually show up, as well as service providers who come to the center weekly.  Of all the barriers to housing, Dodge says, the sheer number of appointments can be one of the most daunting. “At one point, we were averaging 28 appointments that someone had to make coming from the street [before getting] housing, and for some of these other cases, where you’re dealing with immigration and maybe the Veterans Administration, it’s much more.”

The most ambitious versions of San Francisco’s plan max out at about six Navigation Centers, which works out to about 450 theoretical clients at a time. The unsheltered homeless population of San Francisco is nearly 6,700, according to a 2015 count; in Seattle, it’s around 3,000. (The actual numbers are likely much higher, since those figures only represent the number of people homeless count participants actually encountered sleeping on the streets.) Johnson says Seattle has no immediate plans to start siting a second Navigation Center, and indicates that the site the city will choose won’t be a temporary use of publicly owned land, like the ones in San Francisco.  Given that a single low-barrier shelter will barely make a dent in the growing demand, many advocates point out the obvious: Seattle needs more low-income housing, and not just in the form of short-term “rapid rehousing” rental vouchers.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that, when I got to Seattle 20 years ago, there were literally a third of the homeless people that we see now,” says Real Change director Tim Harris. “My issue with the [Navigation Center] approach is just simply that 75 beds doesn’t go all that far, given the depth of the need.”

Malone, whose organization will be charged with making the Seattle Navigation Center a success, says that “if the Navigation Center fails and doesn’t have a lot of throughput”—that is, people entering the center and exiting into housing—”then it’ll end up being a very expensive shelter, and that’s not what anyone’s looking to do.”

A final unknown: What will federal housing policy look like under the Trump Administration? Immediately after the election, housing and homelessness advocates were deeply concerned about who Trump would pick to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets federal housing policy. (The federal government provides about 40 percent of Seattle’s budget for homeless services). Now that Trump has chosen Ben Carson, the libertarian-leaning surgeon and failed Presidential candidate, they’re looking for funding closer to home, at the state and local levels.

Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s health and human services committee, says that “as dire as it is, what we’re facing right now, I actually don’t think that the federal government was going to help us anyway, because of the Republican Congress. I believe firmly that what we do, and every step of progress that we make is going to be done by the city and the county, with, hopefully, some help from the state.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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Grand Bargain Preserved, with New Barriers to Development in “At-Risk” Neighborhoods

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Last of its kind? Vulcan’s proposed project at 23rd and Jackson.

Weeks of heated behind-the-scenes negotiations ended in compromise over the affordable-housing provisions of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) late Monday afternoon, as Murray announced an agreement that will maintain the current affordability requirements in South Lake Union and downtown, impose affordability mandates (also known as mandatory housing affordability, or MHA) that vary based on how much additional development capacity is being added, and create additional hurdles for developers looking to add housing in moderate-income, racially diverse areas like the Central District.

I wrote about the variable affordability requirements a couple of weeks ago. Basically, the new rules say that in areas where zoning capacity (potential density) is being increased more than in other areas (say, a single-family block where three-story buildings are now permitted), developers have to provide more affordable housing or pay more into an affordable-housing fund. The logic is obvious—developers who take advantage of greater height increases should pay more for that privilege—but also flawed: Penalizing developers for building density in densifying areas arguably discourages development in those areas.  At any rate, developers at the negotiating table these past few weeks clearly decided they could live with the higher fees, and agreed to the new formula.

More contentious were the fees and performance requirements (the amount of housing that has to be affordable, and at what level) in downtown and South Lake Union, which were negotiated as part of a separate process than the rest of HALA back in July, and are generally lower than what the fees and performance requirements will be in other parts of the city. (The Grand Bargain stipulated that the requirements downtown and in South Lake Union under MHA would be no greater than what was already required under the previous affordability program, known as incentive zoning. It was considered a Grand Bargain, in part, because social-justice advocates agreed to leave the downtown and South Lake Union requirements untouched).

Despite the signed agreement, Sage and other advocates reportedly wanted to increase the fees in those two neighborhoods significantly, to as much as double the rates both sides agreed to, which could have ended the Grand Bargain and blown up the coalition that came up with the agreement over a year ago. (Opponents of the Grand Bargain, and of MHA in general, have predicted this would happen all along.) After weeks of discussions, the two sides came to an agreement, and the fees will remain the same.

One thing that will change, at the behest of lefty activists and their allies on the city council, is the affordability requirement in neighborhoods whose residents are supposedly at a “higher risk of displacement” from new development—that is, areas with more black and brown people, fewer job opportunities, and lower housing costs. In those areas, developers will have to preserve as much as 11 percent of new units for housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of Seattle median income, or pay as much as $32.75 a square foot into a city-run affordable housing fund—the same fee as areas of the city that are being upzoned the most.

The change is supposed to “increase affordability in areas at higher risk of displacement,” according to Murray’s proposal. But developer advocates have argued that by making it much more expensive to build in areas like the Central District, the Rainier Valley, and the International District, the city will make it much less likely that new projects like Vulcan’s 570-unit, 6-acre development at 23rd and Jackson, which is vested under pre-Grand Bargain standards, get built. (Another large development, at 23rd and Union, has also been permitted under the current rules.)

That means not just less “gentrification” (another term for providing amenities like shops, modern grocery stores, and cafes in low-income neighborhoods). It also could mean less low-income housing. Vulcan plans to make 20 percent of the units in that project affordable for people making up to 65 percent of median income, under the Multifamily Tax Exemption program that keeps units affordable for 12 years. An 11-percent, 75-year affordability requirement—what could be required under the new plan Murray proposed yesterday—will be a much tougher sell.

Vulcan, of course, was the developer heavyweight at the Grand Bargain table. The fate of another proposed project, at 23rd and Union, is unclear.

Seven members of the council—all but Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant—have signed off on the mayor’s proposal.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

With Transitional Housing Under Fire, Rapid Rehousing Remains Unproven

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Graphic from Seattle Human Services Coalition letter responding to Murray’s Pathways Home proposal.

As the city council indicates it will delay any decision about how to address the issue of homeless encampments until December (a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to officially bar camping in parks appears to be the template on which the council will work once they adopt a budget), another, more sweeping homelessness proposal moves to the front burner.

Pathways Home, Murray’s response to two consultants’ reports suggesting a move away from transitional housing (a fairly structured, and costly, form of housing that includes supportive services) to “rapid rehousing,” would mandate a major shift in the way the city funds housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition to shifting funds away from transitional housing, the proposal would change the city’s funding model from a provider-centered framework (in which housing providers create programs to serve the specific groups that are their clients, such as veterans) to a funder-centered model (in which funders, including the city and United Way, determine the best way to allocate funds and providers must adapt.)

On the ground, it means that less-“efficient” programs, like the Low-Income Housing Institute’s transitional apartments for veterans and Muslims, will be cut and replaced with “rapid rehousing” funds to provide homeless people from all backgrounds with temporary (three-to-nine-month) vouchers for housing in the private market. After the vouchers run out, most recipients will be on their own.

There’s a lot to unpack in this radical shift from the current model to the new voucher-based system, but let’s start at the top: With HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD determines federal housing policy, which filters down to states and municipalities, and right now, they’re all about rapid rehousing. That’s understandable: According to the Focus Strategies report on which (along with a set of recommendations known as the Poppe Report) Pathways Home is partly based, transitional housing “is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city, respectively, is $924, $967, and $949. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.)

So what does this purported cost savings mean for homeless people? That’s unclear, in part because rapid rehousing is such a new strategy—just five or six years old. According to Rachel Fyall, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who is studying rapid rehousing, the best study on rapid rehousing, called Family Options, only includes 18 months of data and only evaluated families with children; in Seattle, rapid rehousing is being touted as the best option specifically for single men, who tend to be the hardest to house. In other words, the study most commonly cited as evidence that rapid rehousing works to get people out of homelessness is short-term and didn’t study the very population for whom it’s supposed to work in Seattle.

“Rapid rehousing is very new,” Fyall says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this, and I’m sometimes frustrated by claims that this is evidence based and proven.”

Fyall (who stipulates bluntly that “transitional housing is not a good idea” for getting people into permanent housing either) is currently finishing up work on a study of a new rapid rehousing program run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle. Looking at the data so far, she says “the jury is out” on whether rapid rehousing actually gets people into “permanent housing” long-term, or whether people are forced back into homelessness once their subsidies run out. “We don’t know what happens to them, and that is the big unknown of rapid rehousing generally,” Fyall says.

Another big unknown is whether rapid rehousing actually houses people who wouldn’t have been able to exit homelessness on their own, or whether most of those who are quickly able to get by in the private rental market would have done so anyway.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like Fyall a skeptic of both approaches, says that DESC’s rapid rehousing program “by and large ends up being used for the higher-functioning folks who will move into an apartment, get an agreement with a landlord, and make it work for a few months.” What the studies haven’t done, he says, is compare people who receive temporary subsidies to those “who have not gotten rapid rehousing assistance and got out out of homelessness anyway. That’s the crux of the matter: Is rapid rehousing doing anything that wasn’t going to happen naturally?”

Malone also notes that the small amount of data that exists on rapid rehousing programs indicates that while people on vouchers don’t immediately fall back into homelessness once their rent subsidies run out, they also don’t tend to stay in their original, subsidized apartments. Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI and someone whose programs stand to lose a lot of funding under Pathways Home, says, “If they would just say rapid rehousing is a shelter—’rapid rehousing means we’ll get you off the street, and you can have three months of being off the street in market-rate housing’—that would be more honest.”

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that manages homelessness policy across King County, says he understands Lee’s frustration but adds that right now, the county and city are under a HUD mandate to shift away from longer-term transitional housing and “just house people any way we can, wherever we can while we are fighting the advocacy battle to get our [housing] trust fund funded” by the state and federal governments. “It’s the reality of where we are right now. … We need more resources, but these are also reality-based recommendations. Can we house more people with [our current] resources? The answer is yes.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city is $924, $967, and $949, respectively. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.) What that means in practice is that formerly homeless people will be cast out after a few months of subsidy into a private market that is unaffordable even for many middle-class people.

Pathways Home brushes aside concerns about the relative unaffordability of Seattle by suggesting that people may just have to make some tough choices—like paying much larger proportions of their income in rent (current HUD standards for “affordability” say you should spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and utilities), or by moving out of town. From the Focus Strategies report:

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County. RRH is not an anti-poverty program, so households may pay a significant portion of their income for rent if it makes the difference between being unsheltered and being housed. Households should have the option of sharing units if that makes their rental budget stretch further. Clients should also have the option to move to areas where housing is cheaper. In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments.”

That may sound fine when you’re moving widgets around a map. But when you’re moving people around a region—particularly a region in which poor people, people of color, immigrant communities, and many other marginalized populations are being pushed out of an ever-wealthier Seattle—such a strategy raises huge questions about equity and economic inequality. Is it fair to say that poor people just have to live where we tell them to, even if that means they’re torn away from their jobs, friends, family, social structures, and community supports? Should immigrants who want to live among people who speak their language, or single moms who rely on family members for child care, or low-income workers who rely on public transit, be required to move to isolated areas away from those supports? And at a time when Seattle is setting up programs to help low-income residents, such as the pilot “universal preschool” initiative, does it make sense to tell many of those same residents that their only option may be moving to another county?

“[Rapid rehousing] programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” — Focus Strategies

Merril Cousin, director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, says while the city tries to save money and move people indoors, they should consider those people’s individual circumstances, rather than treating them as problems to be solved through increased efficiencies. For the domestic violence victims she works with, for example, “being able to maintain social support is really important to a survivor’s ability to get safe and heal from the the abuse,” and Cousin says that need for social support extends to lots of other communities.

“If we want to have a diverse and vibrant community, we can’t just say to people, ‘Just go somewhere else.’ Families are already fleeing Seattle because it’s not affordable here, and now we’re saying, ‘Veterans, you can’t afford to live here, go somewhere else. Poor people, go somewhere else,'” Cousin says. “To say, ‘Your only option is to move away from a community where you may have social support and services’—that doesn’t lead to self-sufficiency and wholeness. Social support is an incredibly important part of that.”

 

Putnam, with All Home, says he doesn’t disagree, but argues that without additional funding from the state and the feds, the city and county have to do whatever houses the most people, even if that means dislocating them from their communities.

“Moving them away—that’s a tough thing for the city to feel okay about,” Putnam says. “If everybody needs to leave Seattle or leave King County, that’s not the ideal, but my job is to get people into housing. To me, equity is about getting people housed.”

“One of the calls for us at the systems level is that we’re trying to house as many people as we can with the resources that we have,” Putnam adds, and “It seems like the choice right now between people living in tents in Seattle versus apartments somewhere else.”

Lee, whose organization runs transitional housing for teenagers, vets, immigrants, and other groups, says All Home assumes, unfairly, that the system for housing homeless people can be “fixed” simply by reshuffling money and people around, rather than by adding funds for all sorts of housing, including transitional programs. “I think the problem with Mark Putnam is that he thinks it’s a zero- sum game: We should ‘right-size’ [a term that appears several times in the Focus Strategies report] and therefore if we want to do more rapid rehousing, we have to take away from someplace else. He’s constructed his own problem. [He’s saying], ‘We shouldn’t be spending more; let’s just find creative ways of doing more with less,’ which can only take you so far.”

Lee notes that one of the longstanding criticisms of groups like hers is that they historically engaged in “creaming”—taking in the easiest-to-serve clients in order to demonstrate high success rates to funders like HUD. She predicts rapid rehousing will have the same effect: Providing apartments for those who were almost able to make it in the private market already, while leaving the most vulnerable, including those who are currently served by “inefficient” transitional housing, behind.

Funders, Lee says, “used to say, ‘You’re only taking people who are going to be successful.’ Well, we know that recent immigrants and refugees are not going to be able to exit transitional housing in three to six months and be successful so you’re setting them up to fail. If Mark Putnam overlays the same requirements [on rapid rehousing], then he’s incentivizing going back to the old way, which is, you’re only going to want to work with people who are going to be successful.

“That’s the problem of feeling like you have to cut services to fund rapid rehousing. If you’ve got 3,000 people on the street, and some of them are homeless young adults and homeless families with multiple [Child Protective Services] involvements around the care of their children, and people with issues around not just income but mental health, you’re going to need more services tied to the housing, and sticking them in market rate housing with just short term rent subsidy isn’t the answer.”

 

Putnam and Lee differ on the issue of whether HUD’s shift away from transitional housing is a mandate on Seattle or an unproven idea from which Seattle can deviate. Lee points to the Seattle Housing Authority’s Stepping Forward program—a Pathways Home-style initiative that would have increased some public housing residents’ rent up to 400 percent—as a time when Seattle decided to go its own way and abandon a market-based strategy that was pushed by the feds. Putnam says funding from HUD is contingent on adopting “performance-based contracting” and moving away from transitional housing, so Lee’s strategy is unrealistic.

Fyall, the UW researcher, suggest that the real solution may be long-term housing subsidies—especially in a market, like Seattle’s, where people who work multiple jobs find it hard to stay afloat.

“A key component of homelessness is the inability to afford housing, and for many people, affordability”—not mental health or addiction or any other personal issue—”is really the number one difference between people who are homeless and pole who are housed: They can’t afford a place to live,” Fyall says. She says some groups cite the 18-month Family Options study (which will be updated with 37 months of data in December) as “the success of rapid rehousing, which I find bogus, because my read on the study is that the only thing that works permanently is a permanent subsidy, and the rest of it is just spitting people back into homelessness.”

“When I think about the homelessness problem in our region, everything that’s happening at a intervention level is really just bailing out buckets of water from the ocean of rising rents,” Fyall says. “When you have people at all income levels struggling to find housing that is affordable to them, that is what I would consider the root cause of homelessness.”

And here’s what Focus Strategies has to say about affordability. “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in Seattle/King County is critical to the community making progress towards ending homelessness.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Mayor: Zero Tolerance for Camping In Parks, Four New Official Encampments

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At a press conference Thursday evening, flanked by council members Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Debora Juarez, Mayor Ed Murray announced that he planned to propose legislation authorizing four new sanctioned encampments for unsheltered homeless people in the city—three with strict rules, including a sobriety requirement, and one “low-barrier” encampment where people could show up drunk or high; additional funds for private contractors and nonprofits to create more shelter space for the city’s estimated 3,000 homeless people, and plans for trash cleanup, needle pickups, and to make showers available at some parks and public pools. (Notably, he proposed adding 10 new sharps disposal containers across the city; a more effective proposal might be to put one in every library and public building.)

That was the carrot. The stick is that Murray’s proposal will ban all camping in public parks, including not just the “active” areas that all sides in this debate have long agreed are unsuitable for campers, but remote and unimproved areas as well. “When it comes to sidewalks and parks, people have been removed and will continue to be removed, period,” Murray said. “We know it is just unacceptable to camp. We can’t have people in our parks, we can’t have people on our sidewalks, we can’t have people on school property or in areas where they’re at risk—either the homeless or other people.”

People in unauthorized encampments that are not in parks will be directed to any available shelter beds as they are now, but “if we do not have enough capacity, we will not be moving these people,” Murray said. He also acknowledged that many people prefer not to stay in shelters, which segregate clients by gender, require them to line up at night and be out by 6 or 7 in the morning, and which can be dangerous, dirty, and frightening places.

Murray’s line in the sand around parks will no doubt be reassuring to neighborhood activists who have bombarded council members and the mayor’s office in recent days with petitions, mass emails, and phone calls urging them to reject a proposal drafted by the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services and sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, which would allow homeless people to stay in unimproved areas of parks. Perhaps channeling some of their talking points, the mayor said tonight that for many elderly people on fixed incomes, community centers in parks are “the only place to socialize and recreate,” and that the same is true for many poor families. Homeless people in tents, the mayor was saying, prevent families from using parks and senior citizens from using community centers.

Murray emphasized stepped-up outreach to people living outdoors. He said his plan would double the city’s “outreach capacity” and create “a citywide group of outreach teams that will work in coordination with police and cleanup crews to connect those individuals with services … particularly those with substance abuse.” It’s worth noting, however, that the city’s “outreach” so far has typically preceded sweeps, so people living in encampments might understandably not trust city workers who show up, hand extended, saying they’re there to help.

Murray’s announcement essentially circumvents Burgess’ and O’Brien’s competing proposals, which Bagshaw said she would put on the back burner until after the budget process and the Thanksgiving recess. But expect some heated discussion on this tomorrow morning at 9:30, when Bagshaw’s health and human services committee will meet to discuss the encampment legislation and the mayor’s alternative proposal, which he’ll officially send to the council next week.

Ultimately, Murray repeated several times tonight, the city can’t solve its homelessness problem alone; it needs funding from the federal government, which has not been especially forthcoming. If the windstorm that’s expected to hit Seattle this weekend gets as bad as the 1962 Columbus Day storm that killed 46 people, Murray said, “I’ll declare a state of emergency and federal and state funds will show up.” But for the homelessness state of emergency, which kills some 60 people every year, Seattle is on its own, Murray said.

“We as a city do not have the resources to do this ourselves. If we want more capacity or more shelter, we need our partners to step up.

“These are not the solutions. This is not a model. This is an attempt to provide some shelter and some services until we can truly transform our system.”

Citing “Competitiveness,” City to Raise New SPU Director’s Pay—Even Though They’ve Already Hired Her

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Last week, the council’s affordable housing and finance committee approved a proposal from the mayor’s office to raise the salary for the new director of Seattle Public Utilities to as much as $334,000, which would represent a 67 percent pay hike from what the previous director, Ray Hoffman, earned when he retired this year. The pay increase would be accomplished by creating a new pay band—a minimum and maximum salary range—and a new position, to allow the city to go beyond the current $223,000 maximum for the director position.

As they did when giving former City Light director Jorge Carrasco a salary of $210,000 in 2004, making Carrasco the highest-paid city employee—and as they did when justifying an even higher salary, $340,000, for Carrasco’s replacement, Larry Weis—the Seattle Department of Human Resources (SDHR) justified the steep pay hike by saying that its “analysis determined that the City’s current salary range is not competitive with top executive positions at comparable public water utility organizations. If Seattle wants to get the very best candidates to lead major departments, the argument goes, it has to offer a salary competitive with what candidates could get in similar positions elsewhere.

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Whether you buy that logic or not (remember, Carrasco ended up leaving under a cloud of controversy in 2015), the fact is that the city doesn’t have to attract a candidate. It already hired one—Mami Hara, who was appointed by Murray in July and confirmed by the full council this past week. Hara initially applied to be director of the Office of Community Planning and Development, which pays $167,000, and was recruited by SDHR to apply at SPU instead. She accepted the position at a salary of $223,000 a year, which is at the top of the current pay band for the job.

So why, council member Lisa Herbold asked SDHR director Susan Coskey last week, was the mayor’s HR department arguing that they needed to offer more money to attract better candidates? Given that they not only had a candidate, but a candidate who had accepted the position and the salary—and would have been willing to accept a significantly lower salary as head of OCPD—the standard argument about attracting the best candidates made little sense

Coskey acknowledged that, yes, Hara had accepted the job at the lower salary. However, she argued, “had this person not been known to us, we would have had to be here to say we are trying to attract the talent.”

And Hara took the job, Coskey continued, with the understanding that the city would go through a separate process and potentially raise her salary later. “As someone who was recruiting her, [I] let her know it was not a competitive salary for this position … and I think this process was taken on faith that there were two processes” going on simultaneously, one to hire an SPU director, the other to raise the salary for that position. “The request we made was, ‘Come, and understand that we are looking at [the salary issue] and the chips will fall where the chips fall,” Coskey said.

Coskey also noted, pointedly but obliquely, that “one of the interesting things, particularly as it relates to workforce equity, is that the fact that someone takes a job doesn’t necessarily mean if it’s way out of whack, that that’s the salary that we should be paying, particularly when you look at this head of a utility compared to the other head of a utility position that we have.” Coskey was referring to the fact that women often accept lower salaries than men do, even in highly competitive positions, and to the fact that Weis’ salary is more than $110,000 higher than the salary Hara accepted.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Council Encampment Legislation Barrels Forward as Murray Task Force Scrambles

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Legislation to provide modest protections for unhoused people living in unsanctioned tent encampments continued moving forward on parallel tracks this week, as an 18-member task force appointed by Mayor Ed Murray scrambled to come up with “guiding principles” to send to the council’s human services committee, chaired by Sally Bagshaw, in time for a Thursday-morning hearing on a separate bill that would effectively end random encampment sweeps. Murray spokesman Benton Strong told me after Wednesday night’s meeting that the task force still hopes to come up with legislation for the mayor to propose in lieu of the bill the council is currently considering.

Meanwhile, the council is barreling forward with its own legislation that would make it harder to sweep homeless encampments. The legislation, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of  Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments in “suitable” locations without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing,” which can be long-term overnight shelter, and “stable services that can lead to housing, rather than a return to homelessness.”

The legislation would also set up a shorter process for clearing out encampments that create an immediate health or safety risk to residents of the encampment or the surrounding area, and would specifically bar encampments in places where there is a “specific public use,” such as schools, playgrounds, and sidewalks. In those cases, the city would have to provide 48 hours’ notice, and provide an alternative spot that is “suitable” for the encampment to relocate. All of this would be backed up with the threat of a $250 for violating the ordinance.

As Josh Feit at PubliCola pointed out this morning, most of the council seems more or less on board with this basic framework, although some have balked at the $250 fine, saying it would be costly to implement and could open up the city to frivolous lawsuits. Only Tim Burgess, a former cop who occupies the “conservative” end of the generally left-leaning council dais, seems totally opposed to the proposal; he argued Thursday that if the city could no longer clear camps with relative impunity, police would be compelled not to respond to calls for service at encampments, a worst-case scenario that council staffer Ketil Freeman dispensed with quickly, saying police could respond to 911 calls “as long as the assistance was done in accordance with these principles.”

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Some the “guiding principles” presented at Wednesday’s task force meeting.

Burgess had to leave early. But before he did, he threw down this warning: “If we follow the approach that the committee is discussing, we are essentially voting to allow permanent camping in the city on public property that the city defines as ‘suitable.’ That’s one of my core concerns about this ordinance: It suggests that our response to homelessness is to allow camping in the city.” His suggestion: Expand the number of sanctioned encampments, which have been a relatively stable housing solution for some unsheltered people. Bagshaw responded that she wasn’t opposed to that idea, but pointed out that “that is not going to solve the problem,” in part because sanctioned encampments impose rules that many people find intolerable, including a blanket proscription on drugs and alcohol.

With Burgess dispatched, the rest of the council appeared to reach a few points of consensus: First, that the current system, in which the city slaps a notice on campers’ tents giving them 72 hours to leave a location, then comes back in a few days to confiscate their belongings and tell them about existing shelter options, isn’t working. (The problem isn’t that people aren’t aware of shelters, it’s that most shelters are full, and that they have possessions, partners, and preferences that shelters don’t accommodate.) Second, that the definitions of terms like “accessible and available housing” and “unsuitable locations” need some massaging. Third, that easing the rules on encampments isn’t a long-term solution; instead, Bagshaw argued, it should be an interim step, to allow the mayor’s office time to “breathe” and come up with a systemic response to homelessness. (They’re working on that, for better or worse.)  And fourth, that while the council debates solutions, the city should at least spend some money cleaning up trash around encampment sites, since homeless people don’t have easy access to Dumpsters and garbage bags. “We penalize business owners when someone sprays graffiti on their outdoors and we force them to repaint it,” council member Bruce Harrell said. “It seems to me that the city should have incredible liability when we see the amounts of trash in areas [where people are camping], and we are not being responsible enough to clean it up.”

The council also agreed to remove people living in RVs and cars from the legislation, since they present a different set of challenges than people sleeping outside in tents.

For those imagining that the federal government will come in and deliver enough housing dollars to make the problem go away, Bagshaw concluded with a warning. “This is a city problem. It’s also a county problem. But what I do believe, after spending time in Washington D.C. and the state of Washington, in the governor’s office is: The cavalry is not coming. We are going to have to solve this … in a very short time period. One of the things we can’t do is to wait another two years to have someone decide this. We’re going to have to do this right away.”

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On this issue, the momentum all seems to be with the council. Although the mayor’s task force continues to meet, and is supposed come up with some sort of recommendations by the end of the month, it remains unclear what form those will take, and whether the 18 task force members can reach consensus. At the fourth task force meeting Wednesday, Neighborhood Safety Alliance leader Gretchen Taylor, one of the neighborhood activists Murray appointed to the task force, was still asking “why must we allow camping” at all, and discussing whether endorsing “low-barrier shelters”  a good idea, given that some people will prefer not to worry that their bunkmate is high or that he has a pet. Given that Seattle doesn’t have any low-barrier shelters that would meet the standard of “adequate and accessible housing” yet, this seems like a highly rhetorical, and pointlessly theoretical, discussion.

Critics and advocates of the task force have reminded me that this is just how the mayor works: Set up a task force that includes people with opposing perspectives, “lock ’em in a room,” and don’t let them out until they come up with a consensus. Two problems with that theory. One is that the mayor’s office hasn’t been much of a presence at these meetings; only George Scarola, Murray’s homelessness coordinator (a high-profile appointment Murray made last month), has sat quietly through the meetings from beginning to end. This (along with some pretty loosey-goosey facilitation) has allowed the loudest advocates to use up a huge amount of time each week grandstanding, so that the last few minutes become a scramble to summarize everything and come up with “next steps.” (As Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith put it at last week’s meeting, “I have completely lost track [of] what the charge of this group is.”)

The other is that there’s really no urgency to come up with legislation. The council already has legislation. The task force could be considering the council’s bill, and working to address any deficiencies they see in that proposal. But that would require the mayor to concede that the council has him in checkmate, and that his steadfast support for sweeps has put him in a weak political position. So instead, they’re sitting in service to a classic Murray temper tantrum.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Heroin Task Force Recommends Safe Consumption, but Do Leaders Know What It Means?

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Part 1 of a two-part series on the recommendations of the Seattle/King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force. Part 2, which will focus on the task force’s emphasis on medication-assisted treatment and on whether the heroin epidemic is waning, will run tomorrow.

On Thursday, King County’s Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force released a long-awaited list of recommendations  to prevent opiate addiction and reduce harm for people addicted to opiates and heroin.

The headline, of course, is the group’s endorsement of two safe drug consumption sites in King County–one inside and one outside Seattle. The subhead, though, is the task force’s emphasis on “medication assisted treatment” for people addicted to heroin and other opiates, which would make it much easier for people to access maintenance opiate agonists like buprenorphine, which sells under the name suboxone, an opiate that helps reduce cravings for more harmful opiates like heroin, and methadone. (Traditional treatment generally relies on an abstinence-based approach that puts heroin users at a higher risk of relapse, particularly if they lack support systems.) The recommendations also include measures to promote prevention of opiate and heroin use such as education campaigns and drug-abuse screening in schools, and expanded distribution of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, to more people, agencies, and institutions.

The proposals, which come with no price tag or timeline, prompted some bold claims on Thursday morning, when task force members gathered at Harborview Medical Center to discuss their impact in a camera-choked conference room. “I think that if we do our job effectively, we should theoretically be able to reduce opiate deaths over time by 80 percent,” said Brad Finegood, head of King County’s behavioral health and recovery division. King County public health officer Jeff Duchin emphasized that addiction is “a medical condition that is treatable and should be treated like other medical conditions,” not a moral failing. And advocates and officials heaped praise on the task force for setting prejudice and stigma aside to come up with nonjudgmental solutions for people with substance use disorders. “What is different and distinct about King County … is always being willing to be oriented toward outcomes of health and safety and following that wherever it goes,” said Lisa Daugaard, head of the Public Defender Association. “It is truly remarkable and unique.”

The political backlash to, say, allowing community clinics to prescribe drugs used mostly by heroin addicts alone could have buried that recommendation, but the task force went even further.

And, by virtually any measure, it is. Any one of these recommendations—wider access to naloxone; increasing the number of physicians and locations authorized to prescribe suboxone; creating a safe-consumption pilot site—could be seen as a radical improvement in itself, especially for a city where heroin addiction is such a visible problem. (According to one estimate, about one in five homeless people in King County suffer from substance use disorder, and the percentage among unsheltered people experiencing homelessness is likely higher). The political backlash to, say, allowing community clinics to prescribe drugs used mostly by heroin addicts alone could have buried that recommendation, but the task force went further and recommended not just wider suboxone distribution, and not just eliminating barriers to getting naloxone, and not just safe injection sites, but all of those things, and more.

It’s an impressively ambitious list of recommendations. But it will remain just that—a wish list—unless the county and its cities, including Seattle, commit firmly to funding all of the proposals on that list, not just the relatively cheap and uncontroversial ones like universal naloxone access and educational pamphlets, and dedicate resources to funding them.

Let’s start with safe consumption sites, which, as I’ve written before, go beyond the safe-injection model pioneered in North America by Insite in Vancouver, to allow supervised consumption of all drugs, including drugs that are consumed by smoking (technically, vaporizing), like meth and crack.

The political challenges facing any kind of supervised drug consumption site are already phenomenal. (In fact, I wrote a four-part series focusing on some of those challenges; part four, which looks at the likely political opposition in Seattle, is here). Opponents will argue that building facilities where law enforcement overlooks consumption of illegal drugs will make Seattle a magnet for drug users, and trash neighborhoods already overwhelmed by needles and crime. (Imagine, for a moment, a proposal to build a safe-injection site in Ballard, where a sober tent encampment proposal was nearly upended by howls of protest from residents, and whose residents turn to Nextdoor and Facebook to condemn addicts as worthless “druggers” and criminals who freely “choose” drug addiction as they rampage lawlessly through neighborhoods filled with upstanding homeowners who got where they are through hard work and willpower.)

Opening just one site could create a situation where the worst-case scenario of concentrated drug use does come true, because every drug user who wants to use the site will flock to a single spot.

Given the inevitable protests, the question will become: Which neighborhood will be the first to accept such a facility? The task force recommends just one safe consumption space as a short-term—three-year—pilot project, instead of multiple sites in the most heavily impacted neighborhoods, which many experts here recommend and which is the standard in Europe. That means putting the site in the neighborhood of least resistance—say, Capitol Hill or the University District—but it also means we won’t get a sense of what the true impact a network of safe consumption spaces would have, and could instead create a situation where the worst-case scenario of concentrated drug use does come true, because every drug user who wants to use the site will flock to a single spot. This could lead the city to declare failure prematurely, before more sites can open.

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From Welcome to Murraysville.

At Thursday’s press conference, Mayor Ed Murray was quick to point out that “if you look at the heat map of where needles are distributed across Seattle, it’s not restricted to one neighborhood.” He added that his experience with homeless encampments has taught hims that when “certain neighbors tend to go sideways on us, that’s not the whole neighborhood. … Will it be easy? Will there be protests? Will there be another website to go along with Welcome to Murraysville that says I’m putting [safe consumption sites] everywhere? That’s going to happen. But I think we’re going to get there.”

If leaders  look to Insite as a model, without understanding the nuances of the term “safe consumption,” they might end up creating a site for needle users only that will do nothing for people who smoke meth and crack, or who smoke other drugs.

Murray said he plans to travel to Vancouver soon to visit Insite, the only safe-injection space in North America. (The comment was apparently inadvertent, and a Saturday press release announcing his trip to Vancouver on September 19 did not indicate whether he still planned to visit Insite.) But he won’t be getting a complete picture of what a safe-consumption site might look like here, and not just because Insite is a single facility, located in a neighborhood where most of the city’s heroin use and crime have long been concentrated.  Insite, critical as it is, isn’t a true safe-consumption site, since it only allows injection, and therefore isn’t the model for what safe-consumption advocates want to see here. (For that, you have to look to Norway, Germany, Spain, or Switzerland, along with other European countries where safe consumption is relatively commonplace.)

Harm reduction means meeting people where they’re at and reducing the harm they do to themselves while they’re in active addiction, and smoking, say, heroin instead of injecting it is one kind of harm reduction. But if leaders like Murray (and the other officials arrayed behind him at Thursday’s press conference) look to Insite as a model, without understanding the nuances of the term “safe consumption,” they might end up creating a site for needle users only that will do nothing for people who smoke meth and crack, or who smoke other drugs.

This isn’t just a theoretical concern. For example, media reports on last week’s announcement have consistently referred to CHELs as “safe-injection sites,” the assumption being that they will be for heroin users to inject heroin under supervision. And the report itself hedges on this question. “Every effort is to be made to ensure that the provision of supplies and space for consuming illicit drugs (NOT tobacco-containing products or marijuana) via smoking (more precisely sublimation, meaning without combustion of the drug itself) and nasal inhalation be incorporated into the CHEL program design,” the report says.

I asked Finegood what “every effort” means, and whether true safe consumption might end up falling victim to political compromise. After a long pause, Finegood responded: “I just don’t know.”

“There was just such an emphasis on it through the task force, to be able to provide that kind of resource and understanding—that we don’t want to move downstream inadvertently and say you can’t come here because you’re smoking,” Finegood told me. “Maybe [not emphasizing other means of consumption more] was an oversight on our part.”

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Questions, Not Consensus, As Deadline for Sweeps Protocols Looms

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Nothing could have summed up last night’s meeting of the mayor’s 18-member Unsanctioned Encampments Cleanup Protocols Task Force better, for me, than the moment when task force co-chair Sally Clark, at that very moment presiding over the meeting, “liked” the following tweet:

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Yet that’s basically what the task force is expected, by the end of the month, to do: Come up with recommendations that will help determine when, how, and under what circumstances the city can remove people and their possessions from an unsanctioned encampment.

The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services arguably circumvented the task force last month, when they proposed their own legislation that would make it much harder to sweep unsanctioned encampments, a move that some on the task force view as a sign of urgency, and others as a provocation. As task force member (and Alliance for Pioneer Square director) Leslie Smith put it, the new proposal “is hurrying along the path, and I think that has given us either a greater sense of urgency to this group or a greater sense of hopelessness.”

I’ve been to two of the three task force meetings so far (there will be at least three more before the end of the month, but only one is likely to be as long as or longer than tonight’s), and the overwhelming sense is that no one quite knows why they’re there. The format so far has been: Public comment (this week, Magnolia resident/Neighborhood Safety Alliance representative Cindy Pierce expressed confusion at why the task force was meeting at all, given that there are plenty of shelter and treatment beds available: “I see a lot of money being spent and a pretty simple answer, so why do we continue to have these conversations?”), followed by official presentations, followed by a rushed hour or so of discussion that can sound an awful lot like serial grandstanding. By the time most task force members have said their piece, it’s 8:00, and there’s no time left to talk about recommendations, or solutions, or finding common ground. 

For example: Committee members spent a lot of time at last week’s meeting interrogating Chris Potter from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) about exactly what kind of notice the city currently gives encampment residents whom it plans to sweep, whether it provides outreach services to people living on their own, and whether the city is sufficiently tracking and collecting data on the homeless. Near the end of that meeting, NSA member Gretchen Taylor, a member of the task force, asked rhetorically, “Why are we even entertaining the idea of allowing people to camp wherever they want in our city?”

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Cindy Pierce

The discussion last night (which didn’t really get off the ground until about 7:15, after presentations by staffers from multiple city departments, the county, and the state department of transportation), initially seemed like it would be another re-litigation of whether the city’s encampment policy should be changed at all.

But the meeting quickly took a turn for the ontological, when committee members started asking whether the task force could accomplish anything, given its limited time frame and the fact that the council was already considering legislation that would drastically change the city’s policy on encampment sweeps regardless of what the task force comes up with. “My take on tonight is, I have completely lost track [of] what the charge of this group is, and I think this group may have lost track of that” too, Smith said. Eisinger, who initially declined the mayor’s invitation to serve on the task force, added, “I’m disappointed at how this task force is being used… [and] I find it deeply frustrating to be asked to participate in a process in which … this group of people, who have given their time to serve, do not have the opportunity to participate.”

Chloe Gale, co-director of Evergreen Treatment Services’ REACH outreach program, tried to refocus the conversation. “We’ve heard really great stories [in these meetings], but we do not have the resources here at this table to answer those [bigger] questions” about homelessness, Gale said. “To me, it boils down to, ‘When do we move somebody?’ That’s what we do have to deal with.” But will they? We’ll know by the end of the month.

While the mayor’s meetings are winding up, the council is moving forward with parallel proposals to deal with encampments: The ACLU legislation, which got assigned to council member Sally Bagshaw’s human services committee last Tuesday, and a set of protocols for clearing the last remaining residents of the Jungle, which moved out of committee by a 4-2 vote on Wednesday afternoon.

Tim Burgess voted “no” on the ACLU legislation, and Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant said no to the protocols for clearing the greenbelt, which will entail telling the 100 or so people remaining there that they have to leave. “Every effort will be made to achieve voluntary compliance  with these police orders and every individual circumstance will be evaluated based on the input and experience of outreach workers,” the plan says bluntly. Many of the people who were living in the Jungle encampments have now relocated to another temporary site on Airport Way, which began as an unsanctioned encampment and is now a tacitly sanctioned one; many others remain unaccounted for.

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Jeff Lilley, head of the Union Gospel Mission (the agency charged with conducting outreach during the Jungle clearout), implied strongly during the meeting that there are more than enough shelter and treatment beds for everyone who needs one; the problem is convincing people who “have to be told” that living outside isn’t their best option to take them. O’Brien and Sawant were skeptical of that claim, and O’Brien noted that, extrapolating from UGM’s own numbers, about 200 people simply moved on from the Jungle without being connected to any kind of housing or services whatsoever. But Lilley countered that some of those people were “transients”—people who drifted here from somewhere else, and may have gone back there—and that many were not really homeless to begin with. “You literally lost some of the population that was just there to sell and deal drugs,” he said.

Near the end of the meeting, Sawant posed a question I asked on Twitter: Will all the “42 available treatment beds” UGM says it has lying unused require participation in an explicitly Christian program? After all, a recovery program that requires participants to pray to Jesus isn’t really inclusive—nor can it be publicly funded under the separation of church and state. (UGM operates largely outside the city and county homeless service system for that very reason). Lilley said UGM’s shelter does not require church participation, but their year-long treatment program requires commitment to Christianity, including daily Bible study and lessons in “how to live with self-worth and self-respect through the power of Christ.”

The Jungle cleanup protocols go the full council next Monday, where they’ll almost certainly be approved.