Tag: Navigation Team

As Seattle Reopens, the City Faces Tough Questions About Its Response to Homelessness

The crisis of homelessness, which exists alongside and intersects with the issue of police violence and the tendency by government to insert cops into situations where their presence exacerbates tensions or just isn’t needed, has fallen below the fold over the past few weeks, but the crisis continues.

Last week, the county and city held the second monthly meeting of the new county-run regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to take over the duties of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division by the end of the year. Although they mostly just discussed the process for selecting a firm to come up with a list of candidates for “CEO” of the authority (“CEO” being the universal new term for public servants employed by the government, apparently), there were tensions over whether the input of the “lived experience” members of the authority’s governing board—all of them people of color—was being taken seriously.

Here’s a roundup of some other homelessness-related news that has slipped below the radar in the past few weeks.

• The city’s Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed. This dramatic discrepancy was first reported by writer Guy Oron on Twitter. In April, I requested the same information Oron received through his press release; the city notified me that the records were available last week, but has not yet produced them, despite the fact that I paid for them three days ago and have followed up with two emails without any response.

HSD did not respond by press time to questions, sent early Monday, about the difference between the numbers the city gave me back in March and the actual number of “obstruction” removals. When official numbers have proved to be inaccurate in the past, the department has generally responded by saying that their early numbers were “preliminary” and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed

It’s important to note that there would be no discrepancy between the numbers HSD initially pushed out and the actual numbers if HSD hadn’t chosen to push out the narrative that they had slowed down encampment removals in response to the pandemic in the first place. By claiming that the Navigation Team had only removed 15 encampments in March, HSD was trying to promote the narrative that they had dramatically reduced the number of sweeps they conducted in the early weeks of the pandemic before suspending them completely on March 17. As the agency put it on March 17: “Since the beginning of March and in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Navigation Team has primarily focused on conducting outreach. … Since March 2, there have been limited Navigation Team removals.”

Even accepting that the original number of 15 was preliminary, the actual number of removals was not “limited” in comparison with the Navigation Team’s track record during previous months. Extrapolated out to cover the month of March, 60 removals between March 2 and March 15 represents a higher rate of removals than what the Navigation Team reported in its most recent quarterly report—120 per month, versus just 101 per month in the last three months of last year. (For obstruction and hazard removals only, March was on track for 114 removals against an actual average of 97.) In other words, not only did the Navigation Team not slow down encampment sweeps in early March, it appears to have accelerated them.

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has shifted to doing “obstruction” removals almost exclusively; these do not require advance notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services.

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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.

• Another narrative that both HSD and the mayor’s office have pushed is that the Navigation Team has had an extraordinarily high shelter “enrollment” rate since the COVID-19 epidemic began. According to several separate posts on HSD’s website, “Preliminary data shows approximately 70% of all referrals the Navigation Team has made citywide since mid-April arrived and enrolled at these new shelter resources.”

This success rate, which deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller also touted during a tense city council meeting about legislation that would have reined in the Navigation Team’s powers, is the inverse of the team’s usual enrollment rate, which is less than 30 percent. This rate only reflects the percentage of people who “accept” offers of shelter and then follow through; those who aren’t interested are not counted in these percentages.

HSD acknowledges that the high enrollment rate is related to the fact that people living at the Commons encampment were offered guaranteed spots in highly desirable new enhanced shelter beds or spots in tiny house villages reserved specifically for the Navigation Team. The city has created fewer than 100 new shelter beds during the COVID crisis, and those are now full. When I asked HSD what the “preliminary data” have to say about the shelter enrollment rate from sweeps that took place after the city announced its 70 percent success rate, a spokesman said HSD couldn’t provide preliminary data for those removals because people at those encampments were referred to available shelter beds all over than town, rather than funneled into brand-new beds created for that purpose, making them harder to track in real time.

Fair enough. Or it would be, if HSD and the mayor’s office hadn’t repeatedly brought up the 70 percent rate specifically as evidence that the Navigation Team works and should not have its power to sweep encampments during the pandemic restricted by law in any way.

The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration

• One reason you’re reading about referrals to shelter, rather than temporary housing such as rooms in hotels, is that the city has been extremely reluctant to provide hotel vouchers for people living in encampments—to the point that dozens of hotel rooms are currently paid for but sitting empty because the city has repeatedly declined to approve people living in tents during the pandemic for the program.

Asked why the city has continued to put people into mass shelters, where COVID is more likely to spread, instead of hotels as King County has done, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office responded, “Through the City’s contracts, 318 unique individuals have been supported at various hotels, including the Red Lion in Renton. The initial costs are estimated to be $764,670 and are ongoing. These individuals were formerly staying at programs operated by DESC and Catholic Community Services.” I reported on the county’s efforts to move shelter residents into these hotels last month.

• The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration, both the Salvation Army and the VA have confirmed. The relocation, according to a VA spokesperson, was possible through a CARES Act provision that allows agencies like the Salvation Army to ask for a higher per diem for certain veteran clients, which has provided enough funding to put them in a hotel instead of bunk beds. Salvation Army spokeswoman Lora Marini Baker says the move is temporary, but there is no current end date for the arrangement.

• Finally, check this space for an update on the future of shelters in Seattle. During the pandemic, cities and states across the country turned to hotel rooms as a safer alternative to congregate shelter, giving people experiencing homelessness a rare opportunity to experience privacy, security, and an actual bed, and to escape the hectic chaos of a typical shelter. As cities open back up, they face a choice: Whether to reopen mass shelters, which are often traumatizing and dehumanizing, or find a way to provide some of the dignity and privacy of hotels to people without permanent homes.

In Seattle, where the city is already beginning to add people to shelters that were “de-intensified” to reduce COVID transmission, the city seems poised to return to the previous system, with the possible exception of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown shelter. I’ll be reporting more on this subject soon, so stay tuned.

Council May Take Cops Off Navigation Team; Durkan Distances Herself from Police Response to Protests

Outside Seattle’s East Police Precinct.

Before the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and calls to defund police departments, homeless advocates were calling on the city of Seattle to depolice the Navigation Team, the controversial group of police and civilian city staffers that removes encampments from public spaces. During a recent encampment removal in the International District, protesters lined up on both ends of a block guarded by dozens of police, live-streaming from just outside the barricades as homeless encampment residents shuffled slowly through.

Now, those advocates may get their wish, as city council member Tammy Morales cues up legislation that would remove cops from the team and refocus its efforts on outreach and services, not law enforcement. The legislation, which is still in draft form, would remove funding for any police presence on the Navigation Team. This would be a major policy and financial shift, since the city currently spends $2.6 million a year providing full-time police officers for the team, but it no longer seems as radical as it did even two weeks ago, when Police Chief Carmen Best insisted that encampments were so inherently dangerous that they required an armed response.

The Navigation Team, formed in 2017 under former mayor Ed Murray, was originally supposed to navigate people living in encampments to safer shelter, housing, and other services. To reflect this, the city adopted rules requiring the team to provide advance notice and offers of appropriate shelter to every person living in an encampment before removing it.  Under Durkan, however, the team has shifted its focus, using a loophole  in the rules that allows the immediate removal of any encampment that constitutes an “obstruction” to public use of a space. Because the term “obstruction” is ill-defined, Durkan’s Navigation Team has interpreted it to include any encampment in any part of a public park or other public space, a definition that encompasses most encampments.

Every year she has been in office, Durkan has expanded the number of police officers on the team. The council is currently doing an “inquest” of the police department’s budget in light of calls to defund the police and an estimated 2020 revenue shortfall of more than $300 million.

Via @MayorJenny

Durkan has paid lip service to the idea that police are not appropriate in every circumstance, but has not expanded those thoughts to apply specifically to her own police department. Similarly, her comments about the protests happening in her own city, against her own police department and administration, have mostly been vague and nationally focused, a strategy that has enabled her to grab nationwide headlines for anti-Trump sound bites while refusing to respond directly to protesters’ detailed demands at home.

On Friday, the mayor finally joined a protest for Black lives, nearly two weeks after other mayors across the country began doing so. The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.

The public knows about the mayor’s presence at at least some portion of the march because her social-media team posted photos of Durkan and police chief Carmen Best walking through the rain on Twitter. The text read: “Today at the @BLMSeattleKC silent march, community walks to abolish the school to prison pipeline, end biased policing, and undo centuries of systemic racism in our country. The march may be silent, but the message is loud and clear: #blacklivesmatter.” 

Durkan has consistently attempted to reframe protesters’ demands as primarily national or statewide, not local. But the movement to defund the police—which received a staggering $409 million in last year’s city budget—is moving forward anyway. Last week, the city council held the first meeting in a month-long “inquest” into the police budget, and Durkan held off on sending down her midyear budget revisions in order to make changes that may or may not be responsive to protesters’ demands.

The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.

Earlier this week, Seattle police made their way back into the East Precinct, which has been unoccupied since Durkan apparently ordered the police to open up the street to protesters and remove all “sensitive items” from the building. Since then an area of a few square blocks around the precinct—known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—has been the site of a 24/7 protest/block party, featuring free food and water stands, community gardens, and a campground in Cal Anderson Park.

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Durkan has tried to make the best of the situation, which came about because police set up barricades around the precinct in early June and defended them with force, targeting protesters night after night with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other weapons. Publicly, she has said the protesters have a right to protest, and joked (rather dismissively) that the area around the precinct could turn into the site of a new “summer of love.”

In contrast, Best has said she was “angry” at the decision to take down the barricades and stop guarding the precinct, telling officers in a “leaked” video (which was posted publicly on the department’s Youtube page half an hour before the first reports about it appeared on local news) that in their absence, “armed guards” had posted up outside the precinct and were demanding money and identification from anyone who wanted to enter.

Best later walked these comments back, admitting that she had heard about them “anecdotally” and from social media—quite a turnaround for a chief who, just one week earlier, had asserted, “Social media is social media. It’s not news.”

At a press conference last week, there was an awkward moment when a reporter asked Best and Durkan whether they had confidence in each other. Best paused for a moment before responding, “Yes, I do. I’m standing here right next to her.” Durkan said that neither she nor the chief planned to resign and made a joke about having a “Thelma and Louise moment” with the chief—an odd reference, given that the two characters drove off a cliff because they were being chased by cops.

Despite this demurral, the fault lines between the chief and the mayor—who is up for reelection next year—have continued to grow. It’s worth remembering that Durkan did not want to hire Best in the first place, and did so only after community outcry over her decision to eliminate the only local candidate, and the only black woman on the list of contenders, from consideration. Whether the reason for the schism between the mayor and her police chief is based on real policy disagreements or political considerations, it’s increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention. And whether Durkan is angling for reelection or a federal appointment under Biden, it’s increasingly clear that she wants to distance herself from a police chief who continues to insist that her police force has nothing to examine or apologize for.

Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate

If you’re looking for a takeaway from this Wednesday’s nearly six-hour hearing on legislation that would place some limits on the city’s authority to displace homeless people from encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Nothing is going to change. Representatives from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration made it abundantly clear, loudly and repeatedly, that the mayor does not consider policies governing encampment sweeps to be a matter that can be legislated under any circumstance, and that now is also not the time for discussing non-legislative solutions, such as changes to the administrative rules governing encampment sweeps in general.

Not that they would be likely to consider changes to those rules anyway—in the view of Durkan and her Human Services Department, the Multi-Disciplinary Administrative Rules, or MDARs, allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments without any prior notice, outreach, or offer of services in almost any circumstance involving one or more tents in a space that could theoretically be accessed by the public. Some of these encampments block sidewalks and entrances to public buildings; in non-pandemic times, these present a clear-cut case. But the Navigation Team also uses the “obstruction” exemption to remove tents tucked into remote areas of public parks, along unpaved, gravel-covered roadway shoulders, and in other areas that aren’t generally used by the public but are technically public spaces. In the fourth quarter of last year, 96 percent of encampment removals were exempt from notice requirements because the Navigation Team deemed them to be “obstructions.”

The mayor holds the cards here; because the proposal is emergency legislation, it requires not only seven council votes but her signature to go into effect.

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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.

Senior deputy mayor Mike Fong began the executive branch’s assault on the legislation Wednesday by expressing incredulity that the city council was trying to prohibit the police from responding to crime in encampments, to prevent the public health department from addressing COVID outbreaks, and to make it impossible for private property owners to report people for trespassing. In fact, the legislation still allows sweeps in many circumstances, including threats to public health and public safety, and trespassing remains illegal.

Specifically, the bill, sponsored by council member Tammy Morales, defines the “extreme circumstances” the Durkan Administration alluded to when it “suspended” encampment removals in March, allowing sweeps when encampments are blocking sidewalk access or access to a building, when an encampment poses a public health or safety threat, or when an encampment poses a threat to infrastructure (for example, if people were lighting fires at the base of a bridge). The restrictions would end when Durkan declares the COVID-19 state of emergencybover, or at the end of the year, whichever comes first.

Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller  followed up by claiming that since the beginning of the pandemic, t the Navigation Team had placed hundreds of people “into shelter.” In fact, by the Navigation Team’s own admission, only 29 percent of encampment residents who “accepted” referrals actually spent a night in shelter in the fourth quarter of last year. The Navigation Team says this percentage has increased dramatically during the pandemic, but the city has not provided information about how many people actually ended up in shelters after the last two sweeps in the International District, despite multiple requests.  While the Navigation Team gets exclusive access to some beds, shelters have been fuller than usual because of the pandemic, and the reason “new” beds become available is because people leave, not because they are housed.

Finally, police chief Carmen Best recited a litany of the worst things that SPD has ever uncovered at encampments, going back to 2017, including sex trafficking, a man eating a sandwich full of maggots, and a laundry list of illegal items, including “meth, heroin, pills, machetes, swords, stolen property, guns,” and knives. If we allow encampments to exist, Best was arguing, all these horrors will continue “under cover, so to speak, the cover of the tents.” If we sweep the encampments out of existence, those crimes will disappear. Get rid of the tents, and the people sitting around exhibiting grotesque signs of mental illness will be cured or disappear.

None of these arguments hold water. Most of the crimes Best was describing, including drug dealing, gun and knife violence, and sex trafficking, happen more frequently in homes and inside buildings than they do in encampments; it is not the type of structure or kind of community a person lives in that causes crime, and Best presented no evidence that people living in tents are either inherently more criminal or more likely to commit the kinds of crimes she listed than people living in houses, apartments, or yurts.

Moreover, as council members pointed out, displacing an entire community because a few people living in that community are committing crimes, including serious ones, does not make any of those people safer. In general, sweeping encampments leads to people being dispersed into the community, which is what happened last week And removing dozens of people over the crimes of a few is not an approach police take to crimes that occur in any other setting. Police carried out a drug sting earlier this month that involved arrests at four tents, an apartment, and a house. Notably, no one called for removing all the other tenants from the apartment building, or for demolishing the house and tossing its contents in a dump truck. But that is routinely what happens at encampments, and the city argues‚ as Best did on Wednesday, that it’s for the good of their “vulnerable” residents. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

Seattle Council Legislation Would Rein In Encampment Sweeps During Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As County Opens More Non-Congregate Shelter to Prevent Spread of COVID, City Plans to Remove Two More Encampments

Nearly two years after King County first announced that it planned to open a modular shelter for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property in Interbay, the

project is almost ready to open for a new purpose: Providing non-congregate shelter for between 45 and 50 homeless men over 55 from the St. Martin de Porres shelter, run by Catholic Community Services. The modular buildings, which are essentially trailers with windows, fans, and high-walled cubicles to provide privacy and protection from disease transmission between the four men who will share each unit, were originally supposed to be dorm-style shelters housing up to eight people on beds or cots.

The project, which will include eight individual showers, 10 single-stall restrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, and a community room with a meal delivery area, cost $7 million, up from a 2018 projection of $4.5 million. Operating the site will cost around $2 million a year.

“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus”—King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County has focused much of its response to homelessness during the COVID emergency on moving people out of mass shelters—where, County Executive Dow Constantine pointed out Thursday, “we’re likely to have runaway infections before you know it”—and into individual hotel and motel rooms or other non-congregate temporary housing.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID emergency unless they can offer each person “individual housing,” not space in congregate shelter, to prevent the virus from spreading. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the federal guidance says.

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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.

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“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus,” Constantine said. “We continue to test [people living in] relocated shelters who are in hotels and would be in facilities like this, and we are finding very little if any transmission of the disease.” At the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is serving as temporary housing for people who had been staying in the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s main shelter in downtown Seattle, 177 people have been tested for COVID-19; zero have tested positive.

The city has focused its response to homelessness on adding more congregate shelter spaces so that people living in mass shelters can sleep further apart, and on providing referrals to shelter for people at the encampments it removes, which the city says are limited to those that cause a public health or public safety risk. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan took issue with the notion that the city and county had adopted different approaches. “There is no ‘or’ here,” she said. “We are taking every approach we can and adding significant additional financial resources from the city to make sure that we are bringing as many people inside as we can.”

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” —Centers for Disease Control

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers, has removed at least two large encampments in recent weeks—one outside the Navigation Center shelter in the International District and one at the Ballard Commons park. In both cases, the city said the encampments posed a public safety and health risk, because people were congregating in violation of state and city orders. In the case of the Commons, the city said that a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 17 homeless people in the Ballard area endangered the safety of people living in and around the park.

“The CDC guidance made very clear that our number one priority would be outreach to people experiencing homelessness, to provide them hygiene, to provide them information, and to try to bring them inside,” Durkan said. “But if there are areas where there is a public safety or public health [issue], we will try to mitigate against that threat.”

The city has said that there were beds in enhanced shelters (24/7 shelters with amenities such as case management and the ability to stay with partners or pets) available for every person living at the Commons, although the city’s official count of 40 residents is significantly lower than estimates provided by both people living at the site and by homeless service providers at the Bridge Care Center across the street. “Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside,” Durkan said.

“Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside.” —Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan 

Next week, the Seattle Human Services Department’s Navigation Team will remove two separate encampments in the International District. On two recent visits to both sites, I counted a total of at least 80 tents, the vast majority of them on South Weller Street between 12th Ave. S. and S. Dearborn St. Durkan did not respond directly to a question about whether the city had sufficient enhanced shelter beds for 80 people. “We will continue to do our best, and we will make offers to everybody who we try to relocate. We want to put compassion first but it has to work with the policy of public safety and public health in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

The Public Defender Association has offered to place people displaced when the city removes encampments in hotel rooms through its new Co-LEAD program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by providing case management and temporary non-congregate housing during the COVID crisis. The city did not take them up on their offer, although Durkan has signed off on the program in principle and name-checked it during Thursday’s press conference. Given that the International District encampments are scheduled for removal starting next Tuesday, it appears unlikely at this point that the people living in these encampments will be candidates for Co-LEAD either.

Navigation Team Removes Ballard Encampment After Petition Demands Sweep

Armed police officers far outnumbered the handful of unsheltered people who still lingered at an encampment at the Ballard Commons park this morning, two days after the city posted paper notices that the encampment, which has occupied the area since early March, had been deemed an “obstruction” and would be removed. The police stood around, chatting amongst themselves, until 9am, when it was time to roust people from their tents and get them to move along.

Officially, the city is no longer removing encampments unless they constitute an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living at a site. In reality, it would have been next to impossible to provide shelter, much less personalized shelter appropriate to each person’s health condition and situation, to the dozens of people who were living at the Commons and in front of the nearby Ballard Library before the notices went up.

Even with just 15 people remaining late this morning, according to the city’s official blog post about the sweep, there were only 12 beds available in enhanced shelters or tiny house villages. That means that if everyone had wanted a shelter bed, the options would quickly come down to a cot or mat on the floor at one of the large mass shelters that are still accepting clients—shared living spaces where infection can spread quickly, including COVID-19 spread. And the number of accessible beds was actually much lower than the city’s blog post lets on: Just 3 of the 12 beds were open to single men, who appeared to make up the vast majority of the people living at the Commons; the rest were for single women (seven) or couples (two).

 

The city did not say how many people actually accepted offers of shelter, only that there was shelter available for everyone who wanted it. Since April 22, according to HSD, the Navigation Team gave shelter referrals to 19 people. As I’ve reported, even in normal times when there is more turnover at shelters, a tiny fraction of referrals by the Navigation Team actually lead to shelter; most people who receive referrals never follow up, indicating either that the referral was unacceptable to them or that they didn’t have a way to get there.

Joseph, who had a broken foot, told me he had lived living at the Commons for several weeks after the winter-only emergency shelter where he was staying shut down. (To protect the privacy of vulnerable homeless people, and in acknowledgement of the fact that the people removed from the Commons today were experiencing trauma, I am not using their last names or running photos that include their faces.) He received a referral to the Navigation Center, and told me, “I have no idea what the Navigation Center is.” The center is located about six miles away in the International District—a trip that requires two buses and takes about an hour. According to an HSD spokesman, the Navigation Team did not offer transportation to the people who received shelter referrals this morning.

Joseph said he has had a voucher for housing for months, and has been working with Catholic Community Services to secure permanent supportive housing. He said this was the first time he has ever been contacted by the Navigation tTeam since moving to the Commons in April. “Look at all that stuff they’re throwing away,” he said, gesturing toward a pair of orange-vested team members who were tossing a tent and pile of items, including what looked like an old, wood-paneled stereo, into a waiting dump truck. “I’ve never seen anybody get their stuff back.”

The sweep came as a surprise to many advocates, as well as some within the Human Services Department itself. Just three days ago, HSD was touting its outreach to people living at the Commons, and there had been no public indication before this weekend that the agency considered the situation an “emergency” that required immediate removal. Examples of circumstances where an encampment would constitute an “emergency,” according to the city, include “living structures completely blocking the entire sidewalk, living structures prohibiting safe entry and exit from a building or use of a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

None of the tents at the Commons this weekend obstructed any part of the sidewalk, much less the entire thing, and there were no tents near the entrance to the library, the one public building that is open for a very limited purpose—to provide a restroom for people experiencing homelessness in the area, which until today primarily meant people living at the Commons. Nor did the city claim to have found any criminal activity taking place in the tents.

The only “public safety” or “health” justification HSD provided for the removal was a recent outbreak of hepatitis A, which, as of last month, included 11 people experiencing homelessness in Ballard. But new numbers released by King County Public Health today showed what the county called a “small reduction in cases,” with just six new cases among homeless people in Ballard. For comparison, there were five cases associated with a single restaurant, Señor Moose, that was shut down by the county for less than a week.

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It’s unclear where the decision to sweep the Commons originated, although several people at the site speculated that it came after a KOMO report featuring a woman brandishing a gun and saying she planned to take “safety issues” at the park into her own hands. Last week, homeowners in the area circulated a petition demanding the tents be removed and suggesting that homeowners would sue the city for “emotional distress” and loss of property value. A spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the decision to remove the encampments was made “by HSD and in consultation with City stakeholders, including SPD, Parks, SPU, and the Mayor’s Office” in response to “deteriorating” conditions at the site.

If anything, the encampment has been significantly cleaner and more orderly in recent weeks than it was during the early days of the pandemic, when tents spilled onto sidewalks near the library and onto the actual park grounds. On Saturday, the encampment was quiet, with dozens of tents arranged on the parking strips and only one tent in the park itself, under a tree near the corner of the one-block grounds.

By 8:30 this morning, the place was already almost empty. Social service workers who showed up to observe the sweep said this morning’s action undermined the many weeks of work they’d done to build relationships with people living at the encampment. And it makes them harder to reach.

“With a lot of my clients right here, it was easy for me to give them the resources they need,” said Joshua Perme, outreach manager for The Bridge Care Center near the park. “Now, with all these people scattered to the four winds, I’m going to have to go back out and find them.” This afternoon, Perme said, he planned to meet with a volunteer who sewed fabric masks for all the encampment residents. “NowI’m going to have to put them in a backpack and go out and find all of them. I’ll make it happen, but it makes my job much harder.”

Howard, a man who has been living in his truck near the Commons, said he didn’t see the point of moving people from place to place. “It’s during a pandemic. Where are they going to go?” he said. “They still have to have a place to lay their head and go to sleep. I can kind of understand from the community perspective—if some single gal wants to bring her little kid out here to the park— but it’s not like you can run and take a leap into one of those apartments” overlooking the park.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, sent a letter to Durkan’s office this morning calling the encampment removal “rash, disrespectful, and unlikely to assist people in need of help in a crisis.” As I did, Eisinger visited the site over the weekend—on Sunday—and said that it was “clean, and aside from the fact that the handwashing unit is not working, the facilities seem to be well-used. There were many parks users engaging in normal activities across the space and on the adjoining streets.”

The people who sign petitions to remove homeless people from parks and importune the mayor to earn their vote by “doing something” about the visibility of urban poverty may indeed feel that they accomplished something. But the thousands of people currently trying to survive on the streets of Seattle in the middle of a global pandemic would be right to wonder why, if the city has the resources to send dozens of cops to remove 15 nonviolent people from a public park, it can’t do something to get them into a place where they’re actually safe. While the city offers cots in congregate shelters to people who are already vulnerable, an entire downtown hotel sits almost empty, racking up a bill of $1 million a month. We have the money. It’s just a question of priorities.

As Tents Proliferate, It’s Time to Figure Out What Comes Next

One of the most obvious sidewalk-level impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic, in Seattle as well as other West Coast cities, has been the proliferation of homeless encampments in public spaces. Prior to the epidemic, the encampment-clearing Navigation Team, aided by the police and the parks department, were removing about 100 encampments a month, 96 percent of them without providing any prior notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services to the people living there. Since mid-March, the city reports that the Navigation Team has shifted its role and is now offering information about “expanded shelter resources,” testing referrals, and hygiene kits that include bars of soap—not terribly useful without a ready source of running water.

However, the team was still doing sweeps—which the city refers to, in language that removes humans from the equation, as “cleans”—through mid-March. After that, they moved to doing “litter picks,” another odd term that implies people living unsheltered are wantonly tossing trash about, when the reality is that only a handful of established encampments get trash bags and pickup from the city. In all the “site journals” the team produces during their operations, the “before clean” photos are zoomed-in, prurient—a bottle of pee, an extreme close-up of a piece of feces on a sidewalk, a tight crop on two needles sitting on a ledge. The “after clean” shots, in contrast, are zoomed out, territorial—they take in the entirety of an area, demonstrating the fruits of a job well done.

But you can’t deny the encampments. They’re everywhere, from Ballard to Highland Park to Beacon Hill. The city, county, and state have failed to provide housing for the thousands of homeless people living unsheltered, and the thousands more who spend their nights on shelter floors, in transitional motel spaces, or moving from couch to street to couch. That was before the epidemic. Now, they’ve failed to provide safe places for most of these people to go.

The tents, sprouting everywhere, are the fruits of that inaction. There simply is no “good” story to tell on housing or shelter right now, because so many people are unhoused, and because the shelters aren’t safe. The city of Seattle has created just 95 new spaces—half of them in tiny houses, half in shelter—for people to sleep, and “solved” the problem of overcrowded shelters by opening bigger spaces so that people can sleep head to toe, six feet apart. People are trying to survive an epidemic in conditions no elected official would want for their own family members—sharing air, bathrooms, and common areas at a time when the rest of us are ordered to stay at home and far away from other people.

The county has opened hundreds of hotel rooms, but thousands more are needed, and the city has resisted even discussing the idea. On Monday morning, city council member Teresa Mosqueda quizzed staffers from the City Budget Office about what the city is doing to provide individual spaces for homeless people to shelter in place; the answer was that the city was “focused on trying to provide additional space for our existing shelters” and that the county was “taking the lead on isolation and quarantine rooms,” which was not what Mosqueda asked about.

Meanwhile, the tents proliferate. And even if the city decides to follow the lead of the county, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities and find the money to put people in hotels, it’s unclear what happens next. It seems impossible, in this moment, to think of returning to the old system of endless sweeps—if nothing else, the city is now in a budget crisis and the Navigation Team costs more than $8 million a year—but no one at any governmental level has proposed an exit strategy for all these people, whose current living situation is untenable in the long run. Elected officials say we have to deal with the immediate crisis in front of us and worry about funding and housing options later. Advocates say there has to be a solution that doesn’t retraumatize people by returning them to chaotic, overcrowded shelters. Right now, we’re still in a middle of a crisis, but things are also on hold. Perhaps that creates some space to consider our priorities, what we owe to each other, and the consequences of doing things the way we’ve always done them.

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Morales Proposes Eliminating Most Encampment Sweeps, Mayor’s Office Says Huge New “Shelter Tent” Is Coming, and More

Two of the beds the city is counting as “temporary housing” for homeless people, at an isolation/quarantine facility for COVID patients

1. City council member Tammy Morales plans to introduce a budget proviso that would restrict the Navigation Team’s ability to remove encampments that are not true hazards or obstructions. The proposal, a proviso on the adopted 2020 budget, would bar the city from spending money on sweeps except in a few specific circumstances.

The city has suspended most encampment removals during the COVID epidemic, but several homeless advocates expressed concern this week that the city plans to aggressively sweep encampments as soon as the crisis is over. Prior to the pandemic, the team, made up of police officers, outreach workers, and a cleanup crew, was removing most encampments without notice or mandatory outreach, thanks to a loophole in the city’s encampment rules. Although these rules, known as Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the team to provide 72 hours’ notice and an offer of shelter to every encampment resident, the Navigation Team has gotten around this requirement by designating the overwhelming majority of encampments as “obstructions,” which allows them to remove encampments with no notice or outreach.

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Morales’ proposal would allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments only under a narrow set of circumstances. For example, if an encampment obstructed the entrance to a building; presented an immediate fire hazard; or was located inside a children’s play area, it could be removed without warning. A draft of the bill lists six situations when a removal would be justified.

Morales says the Navigation Team “is using this obstruction language as an excuse, really, to remove people, and so we are trying to limit the funds that can be used to remove encampments. … [Withholding funds] is the only leverage we seem to have. People have been calling on the executive branch since longer than Jenny Durkan’s been there to stop this process, and that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.”

2. During a presentation about the challenges the city faces in opening parks restrooms and standing up portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID crisis, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller repeated what has become one of the mayor’s favorite talking points: “We recently announced our partnership with the county in creating 1,900 new spaces” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. Sixkiller’s comments came shortly after street outreach workers and advocates described the situation on the ground, where thousands of homeless people without access to shelter or public restrooms lack places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Sixkiller said the new beds were part of the city’s efforts to “[move] people inside so hygiene can be accessed there.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces, which the mayor’s office has also described as “temporary housing,” are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.” “The reality is that there are 1,900 beds coming online,” he said. King County’s website is the most accurate guide to these 1,893 beds, some of which may not yet be online; they include about 700 existing shelter spaces that have been relocating to achieve social distancing, plus more than 1,000 hospital beds for people in isolation, quarantine, or recovery.

3. SIxkiller also said the city planned to open a “shelter tent for 180 individuals” in partnership with the Salvation Army. Homeless advocates who were participating in, and watching, the meeting said that this was the first they had heard of such a tent, and it was unclear whether the new tent would be for redistribution or an entirely new shelter. (I’ve asked the city for additional details about the tent). Up and down the West Coast, cities are beginning to move away from congregate shelters, which put people in close proximity, with people sleeping head to foot on mats or cots six feet apart and sharing air and mass restroom facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would pay for 15,000 motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and the city of Los Angeles plans to pay for 15,000 more.

A common objection to putting homeless people in hotel or motel rooms is that they need high levels of “staffing” to supervise them, a claim that advocates say is not true for most homeless people, who are capable of caring for themselves but lack the money to pay sky-high rents. Another objection, which came up at a county briefing on shelter and behavioral health on Wednesday, is that hotels aren’t interested. Some homeless advocates, including Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director Sara Rankin, have suggested that the city or county should put out a request for qualifications to hotels and see who bites. “Right now [the Downtown Emergency Service Center] is trying to reach out to hotel and motel facilities themselves, which shouldn’t be DESC’s problem. That should be something that the city is streamlining,” Rankin says.