Tag: shelter

The City Funded Hygiene Trailers Last Year, But Never Bought Them. Now It May be Too Late. Plus More COVID News

 

1. The city of Seattle has been unable to procure the four hygiene trailers promised by the Human Services Department in mid-March because the trailers are in short supply nationwide due to the coronavirus epidemic, according to multiple sources. The trailers were added to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2020 budget by the City Council last November, but were not purchased by the time the COVID-19 epidemic hit Seattle full force starting in late February. The trailers, known as “mobile pit stops,” would give unsheltered people access to showers, restrooms, and needle disposal. There is a possibility that the city could rent trailers in the short term, but whether and when that might happen remains unclear.

The city did not immediately respond to questions about the delay sent early Wednesday afternoon.

Other cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have recently deployed additional mobile hygiene trailers to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness. (The addition of new hygiene services has been offset by the closure of mobile showers run by the nonprofit Lava Mae, which just announced it was suspending all hygiene services in San Francisco, Berkeley, and, LA because of the pandemic, saying that the company is “not equipped or trained to handle a pandemic.”)

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King County, whose epidemic response has been running parallel to the city’s, began purchasing mobile shower/restroom facilities between late February and early March, according to the director of the county’s Facilities Management Division, Tony Wright. The county has purchased at least a dozen of the mobile units, five of which were on display at a field hospital in Shoreline that the county has set up for groups of non-emergency COVID patients. The others are being deployed at hospitals and isolation sites on Harbor Island, at Harborview Hall on First Hill, in Bellevue, and at the King County Airport.

“It really was a case of, we’ve been through enough emergencies to know that we need to grab them early, so we grabbed them early,” Wright told me during a press tour of the Shoreline facility this morning.

The city council added $1.3 million in funding for mobile hygiene trailers to last year’s budget after a February 2019 audit found that the city provided far too few restrooms, handwashing stations, and showers for the thousands of unsheltered homeless people in Seattle. In early March, the city council approved the mayor’s declaration of civil emergency with a resolution urging the mayor to invest emergency funds specifically in mobile pit stops and handwashing stations.

Durkan announced last week that the city would place port-a-potties with handwashing stations in six locations, four of them in parks that already have public restrooms. The city of Los Angeles, in contrast, has 360 portable handwashing sites.

 

Locked restrooms at Little Brook Park in north Seattle.

2. In a press release touting the city’s actions on behalf of homeless people during the COVID crisis , Durkan’s office said that there are 128 restrooms open in city parks and community centers. So far, of 28 restrooms on this list that I have checked personally, and three that readers have checked (and verified by sending photos), 21 are open, and 13 are closed. These include not just restrooms in small parks in far-flung parts of the city but large community centers right in its heart.

The city must know, for example, that Garfield and Miller Community Centers—facilities that are being used as redistribution sites for existing shelter beds—are not open to the general public; the city is responsible for these sites, and the prominent “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS” signs on every door were put there by the Seattle Parks Department. So it’s unclear why they have not updated their list of “open” restrooms—or, for that matter, unlocked the ones that remain inaccessible, like those at Little Brook Park in Northeast Seattle, Northacres Park near Aurora Ave. N., Salmon Bay Park in Ballard, Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, or Brighton Park in southeast Seattle.

3. During this morning’s tour of the Shoreline facility, King County Executive Dow Constantine rebuffed questions about whether the county would effectively wall off the field hospitals and other facilities the county is standing up and surround them with security to ensure that no one can leave. (TV reporters, in particular, have been exercised over the idea that homeless people with COVID symptoms will “escape” from hospitals and isolation facilities, after a man left a motel in Kent that was being used as an isolation site.)

“There is going to be security at each facility,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “Each facility is not going to be surrounded by barbed wire. This is not how this works.” 

Constantine said the county was also working to add more “de-intensification” space for homeless shelters where people are still sleeping inches apart. The new locations, where people already staying in shelters are being moved so that they can sleep further apart, are still congregate spaces, raising the question of why—if the guidelines for housed people say we should all be isolating—the county couldn’t just put people who are capable of staying on their own in vacant hotel rooms.

Flor said the county has considered purchasing a motel for this purpose, but said that the county was relying on shelter providers such as Union Gospel Mission, and advocates such as Health Care for the Homeless, to do assessments and decide the best course of action for shelter clients. There is some debate among groups that provide shelter about whether most clients could live independently or need, in effect, supervision. This debate could come to a head as shelter capacity is stretched to its limit, and as more City of Seattle employees are asked to work in shelters.

A primary reason that the city says it has been unable to move many shelter residents out of their current crowded conditions is a lack of staffing—that is, there aren’t enough people to supervise shelter residents. Allowing people who are assessed and found capable of living independently to self-isolate in their own hotel rooms could help solve the overcrowding problem, but it would mean abandoning the idea that every person staying in a shelter needs to be watched over by a supervisor while they sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future

Left: HSD director Jason Johnson; right: Mayor Durkan

1. UPDATE on Thursday, Jan. 16: According to HSD, the Navigation Team made 41 referrals to shelter on the first two nights of the winter storm—14 on Monday and 27 on Tuesday. Additionally, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said that there was no shortage of mats or other supplies at any of the emergency winter shelters. “The City is not low on supplies,” Lemke said. “Far from it. The City has strategic caches of supplies placed around Seattle for events like this. These supplies include supplies, cots, mats, sleeping bags, blankets, and first aid-kits.” A source who works for the Salvation Army, which staffed the downtown shelters, said people were sleeping on the floor or in chairs at the Seattle Municipal Tower on Tuesday night with only “thin blankets” to protect them in the chilly lobby, which has a revolving door.

At a briefing on winter storm response on Tuesday, officials with the city’s Human Services Department emphasized efforts by the city’s Navigation Team to get people living in encampments into shelter during the freezing weather, noting that members of the team—which ordinarily removes encampments—were out “from 7 am to midnight” on Monday making contact with encampment residents. What they weren’t able to say was how many people actually accepted an offer of transportation or shelter from the team, whose job ordinarily involves removing encampments and telling their displaced residents about available shelter beds, typically with few takers. HSD director Jason Johnson would not answer followup questions about the Navigation Team’s success rate, pointedly ignoring calls of “Jason!” from several reporters as he rushed out of the briefing room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

In a followup conversation, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said he would not have an exact number of shelter referrals, contacts made, or the number of people who received transportation from the Navigation Team until the city had crunched the numbers and entered them into the Homeless Information Management System. “I just haven’t been able to verify those numbers yet. Everything is very much in flux because everyone’s out in the field right now,” Lemke said when I asked for more detailed information. The number is reportedly in the single digits.

Last year, the city did publish the numbers right away, and did not issue any subsequent corrections to indicate their early numbers were wrong. On the first major snow day last year, February 8, the Navigation Team reported getting 18 people into shelter. On the 9th, 50. On the 10th, 67.

At the briefing, Durkan said that the city “saw greater uptake [on offers of shelter] last year on the second or third day of the storm. … We had a great deal of success with the Navigation Team going out to encampments and saying, ‘Hey you should come inside. It’s a good place. It’s safe.'” 

Johnson said that none of the shelters were over capacity and denied that there were any issues providing enough mats or other supplies to its severe weather shelters, which include space at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, in the lobby of the Seattle Municipal Tower, and at the Bitter Lake Community Center. There is also space for men only at the King County Administration Building. All shelters are operated by the Salvation Army.

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2. Last week, I reported on the fact that Mayor Jenny Durkan has hired an $86,000 consultant to evaluate the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and make recommendations that will inform whether LEAD will receive funding approved in last year’s city budget to reduce caseloads and expand into new parts of the city. But LEAD isn’t the only human services program that might not receive operational funds that were approved last year. At least two other programs are under review by the mayor’s office.

One, a $700,000 pilot program called Homes for Good that would provide small “shallow” rent subsidies to people who receive federal disability payments and are at risk of homelessness, is under review because Durkan is reportedly cautious about funding a pilot program without a plan to continue paying for it in the future. David Kroman wrote several stories about this issue for Crosscut. Continue reading “Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future”

New Plan for Dealing With “Prolific Offenders” Substitutes Punishment for Harm Reduction, Advocates Say

Advocates for harm reduction took strong exception to a set of recommendations from a joint city-county “High Barrier Individuals Working Group”, arguing that several of the proposals are just extensions of the existing, punishment-based criminal justice system rather than the kind of programs that make meaningful, lasting change in the lives of people suffering from severe addiction and mental illness.

The four-pronged plan, which Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced last week, came out of the recommendations of a work group assembled to respond to former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay’s controversial “System Failure” report last year. That report looked at the records of 100 people with long lists of misdemeanor charges and determined that many of them had failed to comply with conditions imposed by the court, such as mandatory abstinence-based treatment, random drug and alcohol tests, and appearing regularly in court.

“We have too many people who’ve been cycling through the criminal justice system and we have not been able to design the right interventions for that,” Durkan said in announcing the proposals last week. “We had some of the highest-cost interventions that were also the least effective. We knew we needed to come together and bring people across jurisdictions to address this issue.” Satterberg described the proposal’s goals more bluntly: City and county officials needed a way “to manage what we see as obvious social disorder.”

The four pillars of the plan, which would be partly funded through Durkan’s upcoming budget proposal, are:

Expanded probation. This would include a new “high-barrier caseload” model, in which probation officers (described in the recommendations as “probation counselors”) would meet with parolees outside the probation office and parolees would be required to show up in court more frequently; and a “high-barrier treatment” model, in which offenders would get reduced sentences in exchange for going to inpatient addiction treatment.

According to Durkan, “probation counselors” with “special training in harm reduction…will meet with individuals where they are in the field, have more frequent review hearings with judges, and give people that chance to spend less time in jail only if they agree to certain dependency treatment.”

Harm reduction advocates say adding more obstacles, such as additional mandatory court dates and coercive treatment,  represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, which relies on non-coercive tactics to help people achieve better health, fewer arrests, and a better quality of life. This, in turn, reduces the harm they cause the community. They also argue that sending probation officers out into the field to track down clients and provide “counseling” will cause confusion and could lead to greater harm to people on probation, because probation officers (unlike real counselors) are obligated to tell the judge if a client is violating the terms of their probation.

“It would be incongruous and disingenuous to train probation officers in harm reduction counseling if the judges—to whom the probation officers report—were to use coercion to force people into mandated and abstinence-based treatment and require abstinence in return for reduced sentencing.”

“I’ve found in my clinical practice that clients start to get confused when parole officers start calling themselves ‘probation counselors’ because they start to think, ‘I can tell this person anything, and, I can tell them how I’m really doing,’ but [the probation officers] are still in this adversarial role,” says Susan Collins, co-director of the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center at the University of Washington. For example, if someone on probation told their “probation counselor” that he was struggling to abstain from drugs and alcohol, the officer would have to report that to a judge as a probation violation, which could land the parolee back in jail.

Mandatory treatment is also contrary to harm reduction, because it makes sobriety, rather than improved outcomes, the goal. “Harm reduction doesn’t have to be at odds with serving protecting public safety. In fact, these goals would seem to be very compatible if we weren’t so fixated on abstinence achievement as a proxy for not committing crimes.” Moreover, it isn’t very effective, especially for people with severe drug and alcohol use disorders who are also facing other major challenges such as a criminal record and homelessness.

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The “success” rate of short-term inpatient treatment, which is what the report recommends for parolees struggling with substance use disorders, is abysmally low already (about 9 out of 10 people with alcohol disorders who enter inpatient treatment, for example, relapse in the first four years), and the “success” rate for people with no support system or place to live when they get out is likely even lower. Although the work group’s report quotes an NIH pamphlet saying that “treatment does not have to be voluntary to be effective,” that pamphlet does not include links to actual research, which shows that although forced treatment can work, it usually doesn’t. The most recent research on the kind of severely addicted, chronically homeless people the probation proposal is supposed to address, Collins points out, actually showed that mandatory 28-day inpatient treatment was the least effective form of treatment.

“In addition to the nonexistent research foundation for coerced or mandated abstinence-based treatment for this population, the proposed approach is troubling philosophically,” Collins says. “It would be incongruous and disingenuous to train probation officers in harm reduction counseling if the judges—to whom the probation officers report—were to use coercion to force people into mandated and abstinence-based treatment and require abstinence in return for reduced sentencing. This is like a bait-and-switch for some of the most vulnerable folks in our community.”

Harm reduction advocates say adding more obstacles, such as additional mandatory court dates and coercive treatment,  represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, which relies on non-coercive tactics to help people achieve better health, fewer arrests, and a better quality of life.

Holmes, speaking last week, said expanded probation, with enforcement mechanisms like “random UAs [drug tests]” and consequences for noncompliance, would be complementary to LEAD’s “softer touch.” “We’re talking about a challenging population that does need the specter of a court intervention or revocation hearing [that] can follow when someone doesn’t comply with the terms of their probation. … We do have to [consider] public safety first, and a probation officer is going to be able to bring noncompliance to our attention so that probation can be revoked and sentencing reimposed as necessary.”

Collins, with the HaRRT Center, says “harm reduction”—like the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s successful program for people with alcohol use disorders at 1811 Eastlake— “doesn’t have to be at odds with serving protecting public safety. In fact, these goals would seem to be very compatible if we weren’t so fixated on abstinence achievement as a proxy for not committing crimes.”

The expansion of a recently opened shelter in the decommissioned west wing of the King County jail by 60 beds, which Durkan suggested could be reserved for “high-barrier offenders.” Durkan claimed last week that the shelter would be a “comprehensive place-based treatment center” with “on-site treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders… something that doesn’t exist” yet in the city.

This statement—repeated by the Seattle Times, which described the shelter as a “60-bed treatment center”—is inaccurate.

“It’s going to be a shelter,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “So, just to be really clear—it’s not going to be licensed as a treatment facility, but we will bring behavioral health treatment resources there. … What we do in a lot of our locations is have a regular, often scheduled, presence of different kinds of behavioral health specialists there to engage with people, form relationships, and help them access services.” (City officials were apparently asked to stop referring to the shelter as a treatment center prior to Durkan’s remarks last week.) Continue reading “New Plan for Dealing With “Prolific Offenders” Substitutes Punishment for Harm Reduction, Advocates Say”

Evening Crank: “There Is No Plan to Close SHARE Shelters.”

Image via Seattle City Council on Flickr

1. City council member Rob Johnson, who has already accepted a post-council position as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL, has carefully dodged rumors that he will be leaving the council much sooner than the end of his term. But here are the facts: Johnson’s signature legislation, the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, will pass on March 18. Another major milestone—the final meeting of Sound Transit’s Elected Leadership Group, which will issue recommendations on route and station locations for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle—takes place April 26. After that, Johnson has nothing scheduled.  (He’s actually the one who pointed this out to me, while refusing to officially confirm he’s leaving early.) Meanwhile, council members are quietly discussing who might replace him. All of which leads to the conclusion that Johnson will probably leave in May, sparking a potentially contentious process for appointing someone to fill his seat for the remaining seven or so months of his term.

If Johnson left the council after the filing deadline for the November election, which is May 17, the appointee would serve as a placeholder—filling the position until the next elected council member could be sworn in, most likely in November rather than January 2020, when other elected council members will take office. This happened, most recently, in October 2017, when Kirsten Harris-Talley was appointed to replace at-large council member Tim Burgess, who became mayor after incumbent Ed Murray resigned and was not running for reelection. Teresa Mosqueda won the seat formerly held by Burgess and was sworn in on November 28.

If Johnson decides to leave earlier, whoever gets the appointment could theoretically enter the race for his position, although they would probably face pressure to agree not to run.

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2. A fight over funding for the controversial shelter and housing provider SHARE/WHEEL continued to play out in council chambers this morning, with council member Lisa Herbold curtly correcting council member Kshama Sawant’s assertion that Mayor Jenny Durkan had “threaten[ed] the closure of the SHARE/WHEEL shelters at the end of June.”

Last week, Sawant accused Durkan of retaliating against SHARE for opposing the nomination of Jason Johnson as director of the Human Services Department by ending the organization’s city contract early, in June, with further funding contingent on improved performance. (This is what Sawant was characterizing as a “threaten[ed] closure.”) Specifically, SHARE supported a Sawant resolution (which failed today) that would have blocked Johnson’s nomination and established a new process, led by a committee including HSD employees and service providers who receive HSD contracts, to find a director.

God forbid we talk to each other and try to make something good, something better, something that doesn’t violate our charter or our responsibilities.

Herbold, a longtime SHARE supporter, said, “There is no planned closure of SHARE shelters in June,. It is true that they have been given only a half-year contract and [HSD has] identified specific  areas of desired improvement.” But, she reiterated, “There is no proposal for SHARE shelters to close in June.”

SHARE’s basic shelters, which provide high-barrier, nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people every night, failed to qualify for any funding last year under the city’s new performance standards, which require programs to demonstrate progress toward moving people in to permanent housing. Nonetheless, the council and mayor agreed to fund its shelters on a temporary basis through this year.

Last week, the city’s Human Services Department announced in a memo that funding for SHARE’s shelters after June would depend on whether the organization continued to improve its data collection practices, which “directly impact the ability of the SHARE/WHEEL shelters to serve the most vulnerable population.” Herbold called the memo “a sincere statement on behalf of HSD, not that they are intending to end provision of this service in June, but rather that they are trying to work… to improve the number of people who are participating in the HMIS system.”

Sawant is holding a special meeting of the city’s special committee on homelessness to discuss SHARE funding next Tuesday, in lieu of her regularly canceled human services committee meeting. Sawant has not held a regular committee meeting since last September. She does have another “community speak-out”/”special committee meeting” scheduled for Saturday, March 16, to rally supporters against the demolition of the Chateau Apartments, a 21-unit Section 8 apartment complex in the Central District.

3. Sawant’s resolution to reject Johnson and start a new process may have failed (council member Lisa Herbold said she might have felt “differently” if “council member Sawant had made her expectations known [to Mayor Durkan] prior to the nomination process”), but council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant, has proposed a kind of alternative: A resolution outlining the steps that mayors must follow for department director nominations in the future.

The resolution requires the mayor to describe the process she wants to use to make an appointment in advance, including any advisory groups she wants to appoint; gives the council authority to review the appointment process prior to any nomination, using on a list of criteria that focuses on inclusion and race and social justice; and lays out evaluation criteria for the council to use in the future.

The contents of Mosqueda’s resolution, as council member Lorena Gonzalez pointed out, are not “earth-shaking”; in fact, they’re “pretty run-of-the-mill, ordinary pieces of information that are traditionally transmitted from the mayor to whoever the committee chair responsible for the confirmation process is.” Her comment, which Gonzalez suggested was aimed at the mayor, also read as a subtle dig at Sawant, who has claimed repeatedly that she reached out to the mayor prior to Johnson’s nomination and never heard back. (The mayor’s office maintains that Sawant has not shown up for any of their scheduled monthly check-ins since Durkan took office in 2017).

Debora Juarez, no fan of Sawant’s efforts to derail Johnson’s appointment by forcing Durkan to launch an entirely new appointment process, was less circumspect. Thanking Mosqueda for distributing the legislation in advance and asking her council colleagues for feedback, she said, “I think it’s the height of good government when you give your colleagues an opportunity, notice, an opportunity to question, to discuss. God forbid we talk to each other and try to make something good, something better, something that doesn’t violate our charter or our responsibilities, and is also very clear about our role in the legislative branch.”

Evening Crank: “No Matter How You Look at It, It’s Getting Better”

City Confirms: No Idea Exactly How Many Are Housed Through Programs

On Monday, during a briefing to highlight the progress the city made on homelessness last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan and representatives from the city’s Department of Human Services publicly confirmed what I reported last Friday: The city has no idea exactly how many individual people have moved from homelessness into permanent housing last year. Although Durkan, in her state of the city speech, said that the city had moved “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing,” the reality is that that number includes about 1,800 households who aren’t actually homeless; they live in permanent supportive housing and maintained that housing last year. Moreover, the remainder of that number—about 5,600—reflects exits from programs rather than actual households leaving homelessness; since most households use multiple programs before exiting the homelessness system, the 7,400 number includes many duplications.

Durkan, and interim HSD director Jason Johnson, were quick to point out that “duplication” also worked in the opposite direction: Households, or families, can have more than one member. “There’s many more people that are associated with these households,” Johnson said. “It could be one person or four people, or it could be the same person who comes back and cycles repeatedly through the system, and we can’t measure that.” According to All Home King County’s 2018 point-in-time count of the county’ homeless population, about 77 percent of all homeless households have just one or two members, which would suggest that one person sleeping in a shelter is more typical than an intact family of four.

More importantly, the fact that the county knows the size of the households it counts means that the city could theoretically use that information to eliminate the problem of having no idea whether a household is one person or four. The county, through the federally mandated Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) also has a pretty good idea of how many programs each household in the system uses before they exit from homelessness, and whether they cycle back through the system after finding housing for a while. (“Pretty good” because Washington State allows people to receive services anonymously if they don’t want to provide their personal information.) Surely the city could use the county’s data, plus its own information about “exits” (that 5,600 figure) to get a fairly good idea of how many people are being housed. Right?

Asked whether the city could at least triangulate its way toward a more accurate number, HSD division director Tiffany Washington said, “There is a way to do all of that. The reason we don’t provide that information here is because it would be a 700-page PowerPoint. After the briefing,  HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding  followed up: “In collaboration with King County, we can look at unduplicated interaction with the homeless service system across the entire county. The only way to do that is through regional governance.” The information, she said, “exists, but we don’t have it in one place.”

Durkan and HSD emphasized repeatedly that the real number they wanted to focus on was the comparison between 2017 and 2018, which shows the number of exits from homelessness—regardless of how many people that actually represents—going up. “Regardless of what you call it, we know from the data we have … that we’re performing better than in previous years,” Durkan said. “Exits to housing means that those people do become housed.” After the briefing, Washington added: “You have to remember that we’re comparing this year to last year, so no matter how you look at it it’s getting better.”

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. 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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. 

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 I’m truly grateful for your support.

Performance Measures Kick In, $2 Million Housing Voucher Program Helps 28 Into Permanent Housing So Far

In addition to the success of enhanced shelter at getting people into permanent housing, which I wrote about on Friday, a couple of items jumped out from the report. The first is that since the city instituted (somewhat controversial) new performance measures last year, 20 of the 46 city-funded programs that were required to meet new performance standards to get the full amount of their contracts failed, at least initially, do so. Of those 20, 16 completed a “performance improvement plan” and will get the rest of their funding, which HSD calls “performance pay,” this year. I have asked HSD for a list of the 20 organizations that initially failed the city’s standards, more information about where they fell short, and which four programs were unable to meet HSD’s requirements.

Second, a pilot program to provide temporary rental assistance to help about 150 of the families that are currently on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for permanent Section 8 housing vouchers, has provided rent vouchers to about 142 families, of which 28 “have been housed in affordable, stable housing in Seattle,” according to the presentation. Given that the pilot program, which continues this year, will cost a total of $2 million, it’s unclear how cost-effective or successful HSD will decide it has been compared to other “prevention” programs aimed at keeping people from becoming homeless. I have a call out to HSD for more information about this program and whether the department considers it a success so far; on Monday, Johnson said only that “We are going to continue to watch this pilot and see if it’s something that we want to invest in further.”

Durkan: HSD Director Nomination Has Been “A Continued Circus”

Durkan was getting up to leave when I asked her how she thought the council has handled her nomination of Johnson, who has served as interim HSD director for ten months, but she sat back down. As it turned out, she had a lot to say. “I’m feeling very positive about the prospects for confirmation for Jason Johnson, once we get a vote,” Durkan said. “I admit that I am frustrated that the council has not scheduled a vote. Their own procedures and guidelines require vote by March 11. It hasn’t happened.” (In the council’s defense, Durkan just sent Johnson’s nomination down in December, after he had already served in the position, without a formal nomination, for nine months.)

Durkan added: “It does a disservice to the department and to the really important mission that this department serves to have a continued circus instead of a substantive discussion on what we need to do as a city. And I am disappointed that the current chair of the committee”—Sawant—”basically was AWOL month after month after month  and had no hearings whatsoever on [homelessness], to the point that the city council felt the need to create a select committee on homelessness.”

Council member Kshama Sawant, whose committee would ordinarily oversee Johnson’s nomination, has held a series of nighttime public hearings/”Pack City Hall!” rallies to denounce the process that led to Johnson’s nomination and, sometimes, Johnson himself.  Since last July, Sawant has canceled all but one of her regularly scheduled human services committee meetings, which are supposed to happen every other Tuesday at 2pm.

“For those people who say that there wasn’t a process,” Durkan concluded, “I would say that is nonsense. I would challenge anybody to go through a [hiring] process where your process was you had to do the job for 10 months. … It has been both the most exhausting and exhaustive process that a person could have to try to get this job.”

Some service providers, HSD employees, and community members have argued that the city should do a national search for an HSD director rather than just appointing Johnson to the position. Sawant, for her part, has said she wants to appoint a search committee made up of human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees.

Fact-Checking the Homelessness Claims in the Mayor’s State of the City Speech

As I mentioned in my post about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s second State of the City speech, the mayor’s statements touting the city’s achievements on homelessness deserve some additional scrutiny and context. In her speech, the mayor claimed that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018 alone. Separately, the mayor stated that the city had made “historic” investments in new enhanced shelter beds “that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have.”

Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

The mayor’s claim that the city “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018—an increase from about 5,500 in 2017— is misleading. In fact, it overstates the likely number of actual households (or “families,” as the mayor’s office put it in a social media graphic that accompanied the speech) in two key ways. First, the number is based on data from the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), used nationwide to track homeless people’s use of services. HMIS doesn’t track households; it tracks exits from programs. This means that Durkan is conflating the number of exits from programs with the number of families exiting homelessness.

For example: Under HMIS, every exit from a single program (say, food assistance, shelter, hygiene, or case management) counts as a single “exit.” That means a single household using three different services would count as three exits, not one. (“Household” refers to heads of households; according to King County, 77 percent of people who are homeless are in households consisting of one or two adults.) If the average household used just two services over the time they were homeless—and the city is working to get people to access more services, not less, in an effort to help people find housing faster—that would mean that Durkan would be overstating the number of exits from homelessness by 100 percent. This is a hypothetical—the city was unable to provide the actual number of families exited from homelessness—but given that the city has moved toward enhanced shelters, which allow people to access many services in one place, it seems more likely that people are simply using more services than that there are thousands of new people successfully moving through the homeless service system and into housing every single year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the city’s Human Services Department, acknowledges that the 7,400 number “doesn’t reflect the number of individuals” moving from homelessness into housing. She says the exit numbers “are really meant to show how our programs are doing overall. So from our point of view, it doesn’t matter to us if somebody uses one or two or six programs to get to housing, it matters that they get there.”

That makes sense—but it’s not the same thing as “help[ing] over 7,400 households move into permanent housing,” as Durkan put it. Olberding says that the city currently has no way to extrapolate a number of households from that figure. “This is the imperfection of the system as we have it, “she says.

The city’s own guidance on homeless service terminology flags this as an issue (emphasis added):

• Exits are captured for each project type (Prevention, Rapid Rehousing, Emergency Shelter, for example) in HMIS. One exit does not equal one household in HMIS. An exit represents an activity of a household in HMIS.

• For this reason, in the count of total exits to permanent housing, there may be duplicated households. This duplication would occur, for example, when one household uses the services of outreach, shelter, and rapid rehousing to find permanent housing and exit the system. This example would result in three exits, from three project types, for one household.

• HMIS cannot currently support de-duplicating households in the number of total exits to permanent housing.

To characterize each of those “exits” as a “household” or “family” who successfully found housing, therefore, is almost certainly to overstate the success of local programs in getting people into housing—perhaps dramatically. This kind of overstatement can have the perverse result of making it harder to win public support for initiatives to help the thousands of people currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Seattle. It isn’t a trivial matter, and it’s something the city itself has noted is a problem.

The second issue with the claim that the city has moved 7,400 families from homelessness to housing in the past year is that the number includes an unknown number of people who are already housed in permanent supportive housing, and stayed in that housing—that is, people who aren’t actually homeless. (People who are actually homeless can be moved into permanent housing through a variety of means, including diversion, prevention, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing, among others.)

The city acknowledges that their count includes people who live in permanent supportive housing and maintain their housing, but they don’t track how many. However, All Home, the agency that tracks homeless service results in King County, does. Extrapolating from the numbers on All Home’s System Performance Dashboard, which includes countywide numbers for 12 months starting in July 2017, and the group’s latest Count Us In report, which estimates that about 70 percent of King County’s homeless population lives in Seattle, it’s possible to estimate that about 3,900 households in Seattle that are counted as exiting from homelessness are in that category because they maintained their existing permanent supportive housing, not because they were homeless and became housed. Durkan took office at the end of 2017, so that extrapolation is obviously not apples to apples. But it does give a sense of how much lower the likely number of actual households moved from homelessness into housing is than the “7,400 households” the mayor claimed.

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 3.08.35 PM.png

The mayor also claimed in her speech that the city has “made investments in our 24/7 shelters that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have” and  “delivered on an historic 25 percent expansion of our City’s shelter space – opening more than 500 new safe places in Seattle.” This statement is confusing, because it conflates a number of different programs—including enhanced shelters (24/7 low-barrier shelters that provide one-stop access to many different services), basic shelters (overnight-only shelters with minimal services) and other kinds of “safe spaces” like authorized encampments. Overall, the city did add 516 new “safe places” between 2017 and 2019. But 220 of these are brand-new basic shelter beds of the kind Durkan (accurately) derided as less effective in her speech, including 100 new overnight beds in a King County shelter at Harborview Hall, plus 80 mats in the lobby of city hall. The 516 “safe spaces” also include motel vouchers for 40 rooms (which accounts for up to 60 “beds”) and space in tiny house encampments for about 100 people. (Under federal HUD criteria, these people are technically considered unsheltered.) Overall, the city added about 366 actual shelter beds (of all kinds) between 2017 and 2018—an achievement, but one that has to be put in context. And the context is that, far from being the kind of enhanced shelter spaces that, as the mayor put it, “are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have,” these new spaces are largely examples of the kind of shelters that have shown little success at moving people into permanent housing.

The mayor actually could have highlighted a different number—a promising sign buried in the statistics. Since 2017, the city has done a significant amount of work converting basic shelter beds to enhanced shelters—a significant and important move in the direction of spending money on what works. Here’s what numbers provided by the mayor’s office show:  In 2017, there were 1713 total shelter beds, of which 749 were enhanced—meaning that they included services, allowed people to keep their pets and possessions, and do not kick people out in the morning or require people to line up at night.  By the end of 2018 (“2019” in the chart below), there were 2079 total beds, of which 1411 were enhanced. That’s a major shift away from basic shelter to enhanced shelter—an improvement that the city should absolutely be touting as a success.

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. 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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. 

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 I’m truly grateful for your support.

From Jail to Homeless Shelter

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The third floor of the west wing of the King County Corrections Center in downtown Seattle is accessed through a series of heavy metal doors, each one closing with a loud “ka-THUNK” behind visitors as they enter. Walk through a disused lobby, onto an elevator, and up a flight of institutional-looking stairs and you’ll find yourself in the old minimum-security living quarters, where a series of rooms—cells, really—look down on a central staffing station; you can imagine guards sitting behind the semicircular counter, keeping a wary eye on the large security mirrors that overlook the ward. In the rooms, rows of narrow metal bunks beds with chipping blue paint and fake wood-grain headboards are scattered haphazardly, each labeled with a different number. The views from the narrow windows are blocked by bars and glazing that makes it impossible to look outside.

The place feels, unsurprisingly, like a jail—which is just one of many hurdles that King County, and its future, still-unnamed nonprofit partner, will have to surmount before the former jail wing, which has been closed since 2012, can reopen as a 24/7, low-barrier shelter.  Last week, staffers from the county’s Community and Health Services department took reporters on a tour of the building, followed by a press briefing with King County Executive Dow Constantine. Here’s what we currently know about the county’s plans for the shelter, as well as a few questions that remain unanswered.

The Basics

The new shelter, which Constantine said he hopes will open sometime before this coming winter, will include dormitories, storage space, case management, showers, and laundry facilities for up to 150 people. The county hasn’t chosen a partner to operate the facility, which county officials said would cost about $2 million to renovate and $2 million a year to operate. (That funding is included in Constantine’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, which the King County Council is considering now.) The shelter will be open 24/7, allowing people to leave some of their stuff on site during the day and giving those without daytime jobs a place to be during the daytime hours other than on the street.

“As I look around and I see the number of people who are continuing to be out on the streets… and then I see a vacant building right here in the middle of downtown Seattle., it seems to me that we really have a moral obligation to open that up and provide the opportunity for people to get out of the weather and to get the services they need,” Constantine said Thursday. “This is an element of what we need to do. This is not the solution. The solution is the heavy lifting we’ve been doing on root causes, on housing, on behavioral health treatment, on job connectedness, on all of these other root causes. But meanwhile there are people on the streets and that is a humanitarian crisis that we absolutely must deal with.”

Jurors and county court employees have complained about people congregating in parks and on sidewalks near the downtown courthouse, which sits in close proximity to several shelters that require people to leave first thing in the morning. King King County Housing and Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook said the new shelter will include indoor areas and a courtyard where clients will be able to spend time during the day, and will be connected to a new day center just a block away, at a county-owned building on Fourth and Jefferson that currently serves as a winter shelter.

A recent City of Seattle report on homeless services found that enhanced shelter is several times more effective at getting people  into permanent housing than basic shelters that only offer mats on the floor, which are mostly a basic survival tool for people who would otherwise be sleeping out in the elements. “There’s no real opportunity to connect folks with services in that environment,” Ellerbrook said.

The Optics

Opening a shelter inside a jail building presents what a political consultant might call some challenging optics—and not just because homelessness is not a crime. People experiencing homelessness are more likely than other groups to have past experience in the criminal justice system, and to want to avoid any place that feels like jail. Asked how the county planned to overcome the obvious association between the jail and the shelter, which will not connect directly but will share an emergency stairwell, Constantine responded, “Clearly, this is not ideal … for people who have been incarcerated and may have been traumatized by that experience. This would not be the ideal choice for them to go to, and they don’t have to. Nobody’s going to make them. But for others, it is a very good alternative to being out on the street, to be able to be in a place that is well built, that’s warm and dry and has all of the facilities they need.”

On the flip side, many people who leave jail depart directly into homelessness; prior incarceration is one of many factors that make it difficult for people to find a place to live or a job to lift them out of homelessness, according to the county’s most one-night homeless count. Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose organization is one of several in the running to operate the shelter, said, “I certainly can see it as sort of a swords to plowshares situation, where you could repurpose a facility that previously had really negative connotations into something much more positive for people’s lives, but that said, I think there remains some work to be done that would really examine, will people who would be the intended recipients of the help use it in a facility like that?”

Constantine said he sees the new shelter as an opportunity to divert people leaving jail directly to services and “interrupt that process when people are coming out of the jail and to be able to bring them next door to a, set them up with the services they need to be able to be successful. … It gives us a unique opportunity for those who have been justice involved to help them get their lives back on track and not fall into homelessness and then be another person who ends up back in the justice system.”

The Unknowns

Constantine said he wants to open the new shelter before this winter. That leaves a lot of details to be hammered out in a short period of time, including who will run the shelter and who it will serve. Constantine said last week that the new facility will house “primarily men,” but Ellerbrook said the county would try to allow partners, possessions, and pets to the extent possible, which means—among other things—that parts of it might be coed. The shelter will be low-barrier—meaning, as Constantine put it, that “this is not going to be a situation where you have to solve life’s problems before you’re offered a safe place to sleep—but to what extent people with major mental health and addiction issues will be targeted is unclear.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose group runs the Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue across the street from the King County Courthouse, says DESC will be most interested in running the new shelter if it “prioritizes people with longer-term homelessness and more complicated types of situations that would [require] the more robust set of services that we would like to deliver. Ideally,” he adds, you’d want to build in as few barriers as possible, so making it coed would be in support of that.”