Tag: west seattle

Six Weeks After City Announced Plans for 50-Bed Shelter, Southwest Teen Life Center Opens to Eight Homeless Youth

More than six weeks after the city publicly announced that it planned to convert the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle into a temporary shelter for 50 people by early April, the new shelter finally opened on Friday—with just five young adults as guests. (According to the city, three more had moved in by Monday). The residents of the new expansion shelter had been staying at YouthCare’s overnight shelter in Southeast Seattle, which has a (cramped) capacity of 20 clients under ordinary, non-COVID conditions.

When COVID started forcing shelter operators to find more space for people to sleep, Youthcare development and communications officer Jody Waits said, it became clear that “our choices were: Cut services in half, or let’s see if we can find a bigger space.”

“What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

The shelter’s clients are mostly from Southeast Seattle, which was one reason the agency scoured the area for a suitable temporary location before moving to a location seven miles, and an hour’s bus ride, away. Eventually, it came down to the Teen Life Center or a disused funeral home in South Seattle that would require extensive retrofits. Shelter clients and staff considered both options, and ultimately picked West Seattle.

“Our clients in that space [on Rainier] are so highly tethered on a community level to that neighborhood that moving out felt really impossible to consider,” but eventually, “we realized that despite all of the desire to stay in South Seattle, as opposed to Southwest Seattle, we just weren’t going to find an option that we could do fast enough” in the area, Waits said.

Before YouthCare moved the shelter, they tried to downsize, finding temporary housing for some residents and expediting permanent housing for others. That left just a handful of people—those who truly had nowhere else to go—to move into the Teen Life Center, which has been closed to the public since March 13.

The city has confirmed that the center will be staffed by employees from Seattle’s parks department and patrolled by guards from Phoenix Security, a private security firm that  charges the city $90 an hour to provide security at two temporary shelters in the Central District and on Capitol Hill.

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A spokesman for the city said the space would “shelter up to 30 young adults” once it gets up to full capacity. Separately, an HSD spokesman forwarded an email from the city staffer who is leading the Teen Life Center effort, who wrote that HSD had “set a deadline for full utilization of 20 participants by [the] week of May 18.” 

Waits says it’s unlikely the temporary shelter will ever have 30 clients, which is 50 percent more than the shelter had when it was located in a convenient, familiar location. “Our contract doesn’t support provision for 30 [young adults], we’re not compensated to take care of 30 young people and … we don’t have the staffing for 30,” she said.

As for the lower number:  “Everyone is hopeful that we will get back up to that 20-youth threshold.” But there’s no way to force young adults to come to the shelter, or stay there—a problem Waits expects to become more acute when the weather turns warm and the city starts to reopen.

“Good weather changes young people’s decisions,” she said. “What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

Early on in the COVID crisis, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department frequently claimed that the city and county had jointly created “1,900 new temporary housing options.” These “options,” as I reported at the time, consisted mostly of hospital and isolation/recovery beds that were not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness, plus shelter beds that had been temporarily moved to new locations so that people could sleep six feet apart. But they also included beds that never actually opened—including 50 at the Teen Life Center. The Loyal Heights Community Center, site of another 50 of the 1,900 beds announced in March, remains closed.

Utility Changes Still Don’t Answer Key Question: What If You Just Can’t Pay?

This story originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

spu-shutoffs

Earlier this year, the West Seattle Helpline, which provides financial assistance to people who need help paying their utility bills, learned about a troubling change the city’s two utilities, Seattle City Light (City Light) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), were making as part of their transition to a new joint billing and customer contact system.

The change, which past shutoff patterns indicate would disproportionately impact customers in the 98118 ZIP code (South Seattle), would have made it harder for many families with overdue bills to get up to date, and would have given them less time to do so. “These across-the-board shutoffs are doing more harm than good,” West Seattle Helpline Chris Langeler says. “It’s getting colder and we can’t have folks without water or heat as the weather gets rough.”

The new customer information system, memorably named the New Customer Information System (NCIS), consolidated the utilities’ previously separate billing systems and, among other changes, created a uniform policy for dealing with people who fail to pay their bills. If you’ve heard of the system at all, it’s probably because it was in the news earlier this year for launching months behind schedule and at least $34 million over budget.

Before the city consolidated their billing systems, SPU and City Light had slightly different policies for working with people who failed to pay their bills within a 51-day billing cycle, and, if necessary, shutting off their electricity or water. City Light gave customers just 30 days to pay their bills in full, but only required payment of 50 percent right away; SPU gave customers 60 days to pay, but required 75 percent up front to avoid shutoff. When the two agencies were consolidating their billing systems as part of the switch to NCIS, they essentially decided to adopt the worst parts of both policies, which would have required delinquent customers to repay 75 percent of their bills within 30 days, or risk shutoff and an additional shutoff fee of $164.

In response to the concerns raised by Langeler, council member Lisa Herbold brought the issue to both utilities’ attention, and after Herbold submitted a budget proposal that would have required both utilities to adopt the lower, 50 percent, threshold, the two utilities changed their joint policy to require customers to pay back half their bill within 60 days.

Last year, SPU shut off water to 3,044 customers; City Light cut off power to 4,624. Most of those customers were concentrated, officials from both utilities say, in Southeast Seattle, Delridge, and parts of far North Seattle. As a map illustrating shutoff patterns provided by SPU demonstrates, the greatest concentration of utility disconnections between 2013 and 2016 was in the 98118 ZIP code—an area that includes Columbia and Hillman Cities and parts of Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill.

“It’s not surprising where economic hardship exists,” Chris Courtney, head of credit and collections for SPU, acknowledges. Neither agency could provide specific demographic data for the households where utilities they disconnect, but Langeler notes that “people of color disproportionately bear the risk of having their water or electricity shut-off under the current policies.  That’s what we see in West Seattle and White Center, and if we had data city-wide, I’d bet we’d see the same thing: low-income families of color being hit hardest.”

Langeler says the impacts to individuals and families who lose access to power and water can be immediate and long lasting. “In addition to the very real effects for the folks who have been shut off—[difficulty] bathing, having to find water in other places, asking neighbors to fill up buckets so they can take water back home—[SPU is] not helping them get on stable footing” by shutting off their water, Langeler says. “The fear and stress that that adds can have its own detrimental health impacts. It adds in another layer of panic and it makes it harder to focus as these families are trying to get their stability back.”

The bottom line, Langeler says, is that “The folks we see who have their utilities shut off are the folks who don’t have the funds to pay.”

SPU spokesman Andy Ryan says one reason the utility cuts off people’s water—instead of, say, giving them additional time to pay their debts—is that SPU is asking questions like, “are we just going to get more people getting deeper in debt? … Our biggest concern all along has been that we not entice people to put things off. That is going to make it harder for them later.”

Danielle Purnell, a strategic advisor for SPU, says the policy change “really only impacts people who are having short-term financial hardships. [It’s meant] to help people make it through to the next bill and keep on service. It doesn’t necessarily help people who live on the ragged edge or who are having a hard time making ends meet over the long term. If you’re having a hard time paying your bills, you’re going to need to be connected to other social services; you’re going to need to look at conservation.”

One of the programs that is meant to help people on the “ragged edge” of poverty (as well as those well above that state) is the city’s utility discount program, which provides a 60 percent discount on utility bills for people making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty rate—about $30,000 for an individual or $61,000 for a family of four. (You can see the areas of high discount program enrollment, which in some cases correspond with lower disconnection rates, on the map SPU provided.)

In 2014, Mayor Ed Murray pledged to double enrollment in the program, and the utilities actually met that goal ahead of schedule, largely by auto-enrolling low-income people when they apply for other benefits.  However, many eligible ratepayers remain unenrolled (Real Change estimates that about 75,000 Seattle residents are eligible for the program), a gap City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen attributes in part to the stigma associated with accepting government benefits.

“For some of them, there’s a pride issue—they want to pay their bill just like everyone else,” Thomsen says. “For some of them, there are trust issues with the government.” And then, for some of them, “the process itself was challenging.”

Ah, yes. The process. During our meeting and phone conversations, representatives of both utilities pointed out repeatedly that the form to apply for the discount program is “now only one page.” It would be nitpicking to point out that that isn’t true, because the real issue is that applying for the program requires gathering extensive, time-consuming documentation of a customer’s income sources—from paychecks to federal welfare (TANF) benefits to social security to child support.

This process sounds basic, but it can be arduous and time-consuming to pull together, print, and submit proof of every source of income they’ve had in the past 30 days. (Previously, the city required proof of hardship for the past two months, but they’ve recently reduced that to one.). Utility officials say the process is somewhat challenging by design.

“We offer the largest discount of any utility in the country, and we also have one of the highest eligibility levels,” City Light’s Scott Thomsen says. “This is a very generous program, and with that comes the desire to make sure that the people who are getting the assistance qualify for that assistance.” Thomsen contrasts Seattle’s program to those in other cities, “where the application process is fairly simple and easy” but the dollar benefit is much lower. With better benefits, in other words, come more stringent requirements, “because you’re involving more money,” Thomsen says.

One of the things that might disqualify a person for the discount program is having too much income because of government benefits—things like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Social Security income (SSI). Even health care premium payments for Medicare and Medicaid, which are taken out of a person’s Social Security check before it ever hits their mailbox or bank account, count as gross income against the total amount that person can earn to qualify for the discount program.

Utility officials argue that anyone living on TANF or SSI checks is almost certainly poor enough to qualify for a discount—“I can’t imagine that someone who was subsisting on [assistance] would ever get close to the [cutoff] limit,” SPU’s Ryan says— but Herbold’s office and the spokesmen for both utilities say they’re exploring ways to address the issue anyway.

Why should assistance people get because they’re poor count against their ability to get other assistance they need because they’re poor? For that matter, what’s the point in cutting off utilities to a few thousand people a year, anyway? Real Change director Tim Harris argues that “if you are on TANF, you are desperately poor—if anybody needs the utility rate discount, it’s somebody on fucking TANF.” Harris believes that “what’s behind [the policy] is the understanding of utilities as a commodity like any other commodity, as opposed to being a human necessity.”

I brought this up in my meeting with officials for both utilities—if only a few thousand people fail to pay their bills every year, why not just forgive those folks’ debts and save the time and effort spent sending people out to their homes to manually disconnect their utilities? The money lost must be minuscule, so is it just … the principle of the thing?

The answer seems to be: Kind of. “Our biggest concern all along has been that we not entice people to put things off. That is going to make it harder for them,” Ryan says. “Our hesistancy has been, are we going to get more people even deeper in debt?” And, he adds: “How do you pay for it?”

Right now, that isn’t SPU’s or City Light’s problem. Instead, the burden of paying for people to keep the lights on, or the water running, falls largely on organizations like Langeler’s, which bridge the gaps when a customer can’t pay and the City of Seattle refuses to budge. Langeler praises SPU and City Light for being flexible enough to change their late-payment policies, but the city still acts harshly toward those who can’t scrape enough together to pay for basic services. That means thousands of people each year, including a huge concentration in South Seattle, will continue to find themselves in the dark.

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Parking Accessibility vs. People Accessibility

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KING 5 TV’s news staff long ago established themselves as the whiniest whiners who ever whined about having to pay a few bucks to park their cars on publicly owned streets. But it’s hard not to notice the fever pitch that coverage has reached in the past few months, even as KING management confirmed rumors that it will move the station’s headquarters to SoDo—where on-street parking is more expensive than at KING’s current digs on Dexter, and much harder to come by during baseball season.

But it’s not just personal for the station whose employees will soon have to endure the indignity of driving around for parking, paying market rate at one of the many private lots near their new location, or taking the bus. (Just kidding about that last one.) Based on KING’s relentless coverage, you might reasonably conclude that the network sees parking almost as a moral issue—a human right that exists beyond the free market. If you believe the city has a duty to donate street space for you to store your car, it’s a short leap to  trashing those who want to use the streets for bike lanes, parks, or faster transit as greedy, out-of-touch, bike-hugging ivory tower types who don’t understand how Real Seattleites live.

See, for example, a few representative recent stories, all from this February and March: “Seattle Making More Money on Parking.” “For Seattle, Parking Revenue Adds Up“; “Seattle’s Building Boom Often Comes Without Parking.” “Growing Pains: Parking in Seattle Getting Harder, More Expensive.” And finally, “Seattle’s Disappearing Parking“; Seattle’s Disappearing Parking“; and, of course, “Seattle’s Disappearing Parking.”

The most recent example of KING’s breathless coverage of Seattle’s supposed “War on Parking” (stage left, ominous voice: “Some have called it… a war on parking”)  is a piece titled “Housing Boom Prompts Parking Shortage” about the “seismic shift” in Seattle’s parking burden. Reporter Chris Daniels’ target? City policies that give some developers the option—and it is only an option—to cater to car-free or car-lite residents by devoting less of their building budget to parking storage.

To hear Daniels tell it, on-street parking has “evaporate[d]” as new residents move in, zooming up and down the street like maniacs when they aren’t stealing the parking that rightly belongs to the people who got there first. No statistics are cited on how many new units have been built with reduced or no parking, nor are of those speed-demon new neighbors given a say in the piece (three white homeowners serve as a barometer of West Seattle sentiment). No information is provided that might demonstrate any “parking shortage” in West Seattle or elsewhere, nor any evidence that only “select developers” are given special dispensation to build without parking. And even the image KING uses of this supposed scourge of brand-new housing appears to be a somewhat older three-story building—with a parking garage.

There’s a whole debate over how to define the “frequent transit service” that allows developers to build housing with less or no parking (they don’t have to build without parking; the new standards merely allow developers to respond to market demand for parking spaces), but you won’t hear about it by watching KING 5.

Instead, you’ll hear reporters like Daniels handing the mic freely, and without any pretense of evenhandedness, to longtime homeowners who bemoan their lack of “parking accessibility.”

How chained are we to our cars that “parking accessibility”—subsidized car storage in our publicly owned rights-of-way—has become more valuable than accessibility for human beings?