Tag: public restrooms

Seattle’s Public Restroom Crisis: Many “Comfort Stations That Remain Open” Are Closed

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is big into numbers—numbers that show continual improvement, numbers that get bigger (or smaller, if the number is the number of homeless people counted on one night in January), numbers that show that the city acts on the basis of data, not assumptions. The numbers out of the city, under the Durkan administration, bring to mind a graph that only goes up. The mayor has tried to maintain this aura of constant progress even during the COVID epidemic, a time when thousands of homeless people in Seattle are still crammed into congregate shelters (many of them overcrowded) or living in tents in the forest, hoping not to be noticed.

Last week, for example, the mayor’s office claimed that there were 180 public restrooms in the city—a number the mayor’s office later amended to 133, then “more than 128 Seattle Parks comfort stations that remain open for hygiene needs.” Because every previous map produced by the city showed fewer than 100 public restrooms in city parks and community centers combined, I was skeptical about the new numbers and asked for a list. The mayor’s office provided a spreadsheet, and I started checking.

I started by eliminating the redundancies—parks with multiple restrooms, for example, that were previously counted as single restroom sites but that the mayor’s office is now counting two, three, or five times, such as Judkins, Woodland, and Seward Parks.  Removing these “extra” facilities and restoring the city’s previous standard lowers the total number to around 100.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that despite the city’s insistence that all of these restrooms “remain open” to the public, many of them are actually locked or sit, inaccessible, behind construction fencing. Of 27 of the locations on the city’s list (chosen by their geographic proximity rather than any characteristic common to the facilities), eight that I visited personally were closed. Those included restrooms in fairly large urban parks (Cal Anderson); restrooms serving play fields and playgrounds (Brighton Playfield; Madrona Playground); and smaller neighborhood parks (Dr. Blanche Lavizzo). Extrapolating to the rest of the city, it seems likely that far fewer than the 85 or so restrooms the city claimed prior to the COVID epidemic are actually open to the public.

The mayor engaged in a similar sleight of hand with homeless shelters last week, when she claimed that the city and county had opened 1,900 new “temporary housing” spots for “people experiencing homelessness.” I covered this magic trick already—in short, it involves counting existing shelter beds that have been relocated as “new”, counting beds in field hospitals and COVID isolation tents as “temporary housing,” and ignoring any shelter beds that have been lost as some smaller shelters close down—but I want to linger for a moment on why these faulty numbers matter.

It isn’t just that the mayor’s cheerful press releases—the graphs with lines that only go up—paint an inaccurately rosy picture of what’s happening to homeless and unstably housed people during the pandemic. It’s also that the numbers obscure the fact that the city has promised just 95 actual new shelter beds (none of which are “housing”), all of them announced back in early March.  In this way, the displacement of 85 people from the Harborview Hall shelter to make way for a 45-bed COVID recovery site becomes 130 new “temporary housing” units that are counted as part of the 1,900 total.The mayor’s graphs only go up, and her calculator only has a “plus” sign.

The mayor’s office doesn’t just play fast and loose with numbers. They also use words to mislead and obfuscate. Take, for example, the word “options”—as in, “1,900 New Temporary Housing Options,” from the headline of last week’s press release. Field hospitals, emergency isolation tents in suburban parking lots, and shelter beds relocated from downtown Seattle to the King County Airport are not “options.” They are desperate measures appropriate to an increasingly desperate time.

I get the political impulse to “look on the bright side,” create cutesy hashtags and encourage people to meaninglessly bang pots and pans to show their appreciation for the health care workers left vulnerable and unprotected by federal failures to provide protective equipment and tests  But no one would blame the mayor if she provided an honest assessment of the crisis in Seattle, shorn of platitudes and flowery appeals to the Seattle spirit. Some voters might even applaud her for it.

City of Seattle Rents Out Downtown Hotel for First Responders at $280 a Night, Potty Plan Scaled Back, and Fuzzy Math Adds Up to “1,900 New Temporary Housing Spots”

 

The restrooms at Cal Anderson Park have been closed for some time due to a “maintenance issue,” according to the mayor’s office. The park will soon get new portable toilets and a hand washing station.

1. The city budget office has inked a deal with the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown to rent out all of the hotel’s 155 rooms for three months, at a cost of $3.9 million, to provide spaces for first responders who need to be in isolation or quarantine after exposure to the COVID-19 virus, The C Is for Crank has learned. The contract went into effect on March 23. The cost, which the city hopes will be partially reimbursed by the federal government, works out to $280 per room, per night.

A representative for the Executive Pacific Hotel declined to comment on the arrangement. Rooms at the hotel were going for less than $70 a night earlier this week. 

The city did not directly respond to a question about whether any first responders are currently living in the hotel. A spokeswoman with the city’s Emergency Operations Center said, “We currently have dozens of first responders who are in isolation or quarantine.” Even if all of those people were staying at the hotel, that would still leave most of the rooms sitting empty for now.

City Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district includes downtown, has been talking about making hotel space available for first responders or people experiencing homelessness. He said deals with hotels could help an industry that has seen “a massive falloff of business,” but added that he had personally received a quote of $95 a night for a different downtown hotel that offered to make rooms available. Lewis says he plans to introduce a resolution asking the mayor to keep a “roster of these investments and report back … and one of the things that I’m going to ask for is cost, to make sure that we are a getting good deals.”

The contract reportedly includes the cost of food for people who will stay at the hotel. It does not appear to include modifications to the hotel’s HVAC system, which might have been a necessary cost if the rooms were connected by internal ventilation—that is, if they all shared the same air. According to the EOC, each room has its own individual heating and cooling units and vents its exhaust to the outside; the rooms also have windows that open, allowing additional ventilation.

Hotel workers, including cleaning staff, who come into contact with people who have contracted or been exposed to COVID could be at risk of contracting the virus themselves. Stefan Moritz from UNITE HERE Local 8, which represents hotel workers, said he was still getting details on the kind of conditions hotel staff will be working under at hotels that are turned into quarantine and isolation sites.

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

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

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

2. This morning, nearly two weeks after announcing the city would be opening portable toilets “across the city,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a truncated list of port-a-potty locations that is both significantly shorter, and significantly less “citywide,” than a draft list that included more than 20 new sites, including five hygiene trailers that were funded last year. According to the press release, the six new sites, which will have a total of 14 toilets, are “in in addition to the 133 locations in parks throughout the City, available to all residents, and are currently being serviced by Seattle Parks and Recreation.” Initially, the release said that there were “more than 180 [restroom] locations in parks throughout the City, available to all residents.” (UPDATE: This morning, the city said that the correct number is not 133 but 128.)

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the earlier number included community centers that have closed.

For example, 85 people who had been staying at the Harborview Hall shelter run by the Salvation Army have been displaced so that the  a 45-bed coronavirus recovery site. The shelter is being moved a few blocks away. Because of the way the city and county are counting “new” beds, the shelter and recovery site now account for a total of 130 “new” beds as part of the 1,900 total.

Just one of the six new portable toilet sites and handwashing stations that made the cut will be located in North Seattle. The rest (represented by yellow dots on this map) are scattered in a rough line paralleling I-5 and SR-99, with one site each in Capitol Hill, downtown, Judkins Park, Beacon Hill, and Highland Park (in West Seattle). Some of the locations that were on the preliminary list, but did not make the cut for today’s announcement, include locations on Alki Beach, Gas Works Park in Fremont, Kinnear Park on Queen Anne, the Arboretum near Montlake,  Ravenna Park, and Woodland Park. I’ve asked the mayor’s office whether any of these sites will be considered for portable toilets in the future if the six new locations prove inadequate to meet the need.

I was unable to immediately confirm the basis for either the 180 or 133 figure cited in the initial and amended versions of the press release. (UPDATE: The same questions apply to the new number of 128.) The city’s current restroom map shows public restrooms in a total of 85 parks and 11 community centers combined, which is unchanged since the city did an analysis of public restrooms two years ago. At that time, the city’s Human Services Department listed a total of 117 public restrooms in city-owned facilities, a list that also included libraries (which are now closed) and a handful of portable toilets that were then available at King County Metro’s bus driver relief stops.

Claiming that the city and county have created “1,900 new sites across the City to help individuals experiencing homelessness” is misleading.

3. The mayor’s press release also claims that the city and county have created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for “people experiencing homelessness.”

This description is misleading. First, under the definition used by the city itself, “housing” is a place where someone is housed. Cots in shelters, tiny houses in encampments, and beds in a hospital do not count as housing, “temporary” or otherwise.

Second, fewer than half of the 1,900 beds are reserved for people experiencing homelessness, and only a handful of those are actually “new.” About 700 of the 1,900 are existing shelter beds that are being redistributed to allow more spacing between cots. Only about 50 shelter beds, and 45 spots in tiny house villages, are actually new—and these, under federal definitions, are temporary shelter, not “housing.” For example, 85 people who had been staying at the Harborview Hall shelter run by the Salvation Army have been displaced so that the  a 45-bed coronavirus recovery site. The shelter is being moved a few blocks away. Because of the way the city and county are counting “new” beds, the shelter and recovery site now account for a total of 130 “new” beds as part of the 1,900 total.

Most of the remaining spots are beds in isolation and recovery sites that are not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness. They include 200 beds in a field hospital set up on a soccer field in Shoreline; an unknown number of spots in a large isolation and recovery tent for COVID-19 sufferers in a Bellevue parking lot; previously announced motel rooms in Issaquah and Kent; and “up to 612 beds” for “people who do not require emergent care” to recover after they’ve been sick, according to the county.

Third, some shelters are closing because of the COVID crisis, reducing the total number of beds available to people in need. The city has not factored these lost beds into its calculations; that is, while counting hospital beds for COVID victims as “housing for the homeless” and double-counting some shelter beds, the city and county have failed to subtract the beds that are being lost.

This may seem like nitpicking, but a casual reader of a press release announcing “1,900 new sites across the City to help individuals experiencing homelessness,” as this morning’s announcement puts it, might be misled to believe that the city and county have created 1,900 new housing, or even shelter, spots for people experiencing homelessness, when this simply is not the case.

More “De-Intensifying” Shelter Space, More Port-a-Potties, In Seattle

 

1. The city of Seattle and King County are  continuing to spread out shelter spaces so that people experiencing homelessness can sleep six feet apart—a solution that still leaves thousands of vulnerable people sharing close quarters in large, congregate settings, but is considered safer than the cheek-to-jowl sleeping arrangements in shelters under ordinary conditions.

The new “de-intensification” spaces will mostly be located in Seattle. In addition to 80 spaces at the the King County Airport and 100 spaces at the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center that were announced weeks ago, the new shelter locations include:

• 79 additional spots for DESC shelter residents at Exhibition Hall, for a total of 179;

• 146 spots at Fisher Pavilion, to be run by the Salvation Army;

• 50 spots at a women’s shelter run by Catholic Community Services, the YWCA, and WHEEL at the Garfield Community Center; and

• 50 spots at the Miller Park Community Center, to be operated by Compass Housing.

Two more “de-intensification” spaces, with room for 50 people each, will open in April at the Loyal Heights Community Center and the Southwest Teen Center. The city has not identified a provider for either of these spaces yet.

In addition, the Congregation for the Homeless in Bellevue is providing space for 80 people, and a new space for 24 people is supposed to open on Harbor Island in April.

Although the new spaces will create more physical distance between shelter residents’ cots, they are not new shelter spots; they’re being added specifically to redistribute people staying in existing shelters into larger spaces so that they can sleep further apart. So far, Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced 50 new shelter spaces in North Seattle and a total of 45 new spots (down from the previously announced 50) in tiny house villages.

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

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

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

2.The city announced plans more than a week ago to add portable toilets, and to get four of five hygiene trailers that were funded last November up and rolling, to serve the thousands of homeless people in Seattle whose access to indoor or private toilets has been diminished drastically because of COVID-related closures. The mayor’s office has declined to say when any of these new facilities will be up and running; last Friday, Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, said “We should have a more detailed update next week.”

However, an internal list, which appears to be preliminary, indicates that there will be more than 20 portable toilet locations around the city, with a total of about 36 new port-a-potties citywide.

Most of the portable toilet locations on the list are in public parks, which already have restrooms with sinks and running water. The JIC spokesman was unable to say whether this meant that parks restrooms, which have remained open so far, will be closing, or if the extra portable toilets would be in addition to the ones that are already there.

A spokesman for the city’s Joint Information Center said the detailed list (which includes addresses, the number of toilets at each location, the number of those toilets that will be ADA-compliant, and the number of handwashing stations) is “an early draft” and “not accurate,” and that “We hope to have something within the next day or two.”

Most of the portable toilet locations on the list are in public parks, which already have restrooms with sinks and running water. The JIC spokesman was unable to say whether this meant that parks restrooms, which have remained open so far, will be closing, or if the extra portable toilets would be in addition to the ones that are already there. “I am unable to confirm this. All of this is still being determined,” he said.

The list ranks portable toilets by priority, and includes locations in Ravenna Park, the Georgetown Playfield, the Arboretum, City Hall Park, Cal Anderson Park, the Rainier Playfield, Colman Park, the Lake City Community Center, and Genesee Park. It’s unclear whether the toilets, which will also include hand-washing facilities, will be staffed, and if so, whether they will be open all the time or just during business hours.

The list appears to show a significant gap in West Seattle.

Currently, people experiencing homelessness have access to restrooms at parks and community centers during the hours when those facilities are open. Other restroom sites listed on the city’s interactive restroom map, including all Seattle Public Library locations and some of the emergency day centers and urban rest stops, have closed down in response to the epidemic or are open only limited hours and to limited populations.

 

Evening Crank Part 2: Unanswered Questions

Coming soon to a sidewalk near you?

1. Since the COVID crisis began, it has become tougher than usual to get information directly from city departments, which now respond to pretty much any inquiry with some version of “all questions have to go through the mayor’s office.” (There is one exception, but I won’t tell you what it is.) The mayor’s office, in turn, typically responds to these requests with some version of, “We will have an announcement on that in the coming days,” which may or may not be followed by an announcement.

Things the mayor’s office was unable to tell me about in the past few days include:

When the city (specifically, Seattle Public Utilities) plans to deploy the portable toilets announced on the Human Service Department’s website one week ago; how many toilets there will be; where they will be located; and how (and how often) they will be maintained.

Where four mobile hygiene trailers funded in last year’s budget (funded last year but re-announced in the same HSD blog post) will be deployed, and on what schedule.

How, specifically, the city plans to fill the 50 new shelter beds, and 50 new spots in two tiny house villages, it plans to open in response to the COVID crisis, and how the city will choose who gets this scarce resource. Specifically, I’ve asked how many of those beds and slots will be reserved for people referred by the Navigation Team, which is providing outreach and information at unsanctioned encampments, and how many will be open to people who are contacted by other outreach workers, such as those at REACH, which is still doing encampment outreach during the pandemic.

These questions, particularly the ones about restrooms, are of critical and immediate importance to the thousands of homeless people, both unsheltered and staying in nighttime-only emergency shelters, in Seattle. Most of the city’s public restrooms, including those inside private businesses and those in libraries, hygiene centers, and social service agencies, have closed, giving people without homes few options in a city where restroom availability already fell far short of international standards.

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

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

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

2. This afternoon (12 days ago in COVID time), the city council approved a plan to reallocate about $1 million (out of about $12 million total) in community development block grants originally designated for housing construction to pay for grants to low-income small business owners. Only council member Kshama Sawant voted against the plan, arguing that the city should dip into its “rainy day fund” instead of taking money that could have theoretically gone to housing (although it was not allocated to any particular project.)

The city has two emergency funds, the rainy day fund and the emergency subfund, which can be used to pay for unanticipated spending needs or to mitigate cuts during budget downturns. Earlier this month, city budget director Ben Noble estimated that the city could face a revenue shortfall this year of $110 million. Together, both emergency funds total about $125 million.

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the legislation, raised one concern last week that she said she’ll revisit after the funds are allocated and the current crisis has abated: Online application materials for the grants were initially only in English, potentially putting small business owners who don’t speak English as their native language at a disadvantage when applying for the grants.

“When those who don’t speak English have extra barriers put in place in order to participate… [it’s] an example of how often our city government operates with blinders on to anyone who isn’t part of the dominant culture,” Morales said at a council meeting last week. But, “rather than slow down the disbursement of this particular fund, I’m asking that we hear back from the [Office of Economic Development] this summer on how these funds were distributed” to make sure that non-English-speaking business owners had equal access to the funds.