Hotel Shelter Closes, County Debates Jail Releases, State Mulls Human Services Mandate, and Harrell Appoints New Directors

1. On Friday, January 29, the Executive Pacific Hotel concluded its service as a homeless shelter. By the end of the day, the Low-Income Housing Institute had relocated almost everyone still living there to permanent housing, shelter, or another hotel. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, just one resident declined to engage with agency staffers and returned to unsheltered homelessness. Overall, 79 of the 91 households (totaling 99 people living in the hotel as of last October moved (or will move) into permanent housing, five now live at one of LIHI’s tiny house villages, and one moved into transitional housing. Just six left without a specific destination.

That’s a positive outcome, especially compared to the worst-case scenario: Dozens of people back out on the street in the coldest months of the year. But it isn’t the outcome former Mayor Jenny Durkan wanted when she agreed, reluctantly, to spend federal COVID relief dollars on the hotels. Under the administration’s ambitious, highly unrealistic plan, the hotels would serve as short-term way stations rather than traditional shelters. People would move in off the street, sign up for services, and move swiftly into market-rate housing using short term rapid housing grants as a bridge between living on the street and self-sufficiency.

The reasons this ambitious plan was a failure were obvious from the beginning. Rapid rehousing works best for people who have few barriers to housing, such as people who recently became homeless because of job loss or another temporary condition. The hotel, in contrast, served many chronically homeless people with complex physical and mental health conditions that contributed to their homelessness, including people the city referred there during its regular encampment sweeps. “It was a poor design, because the people who were moved into the hotel did not match the profile of who would be successful in rapid rehousing,” Lee said.

By the end of its ten-month contract, LIHI and its rapid-rehousing partner, Catholic Community Services, had enrolled just 33 people in rapid rehousing. Enrollment, as we’ve reported, is just the beginning of a lengthy process that may not ultimately lead to housing.

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee meeting last Friday, committee chair Andrew Lewis said he hoped the city’s Human Services Department would provide “a pretty detailed after action report on the rapid rehousing function, to determine what lessons we can learn and transition over to the King County Regional Homelessness authority,” which has taken over HSD’s former responsibilities as the chief homelessness agency in the region.

2. The King County Council held a public hearing on Tuesday about several possible options to reduce the number of people in county jails in response to a surge of COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff. King County Executive Dow Constantine, the county prosecutor’s office, and King County courts all have a say in various aspects of who is booked into or released from jail.

The hearing centered on demands from unlikely allies: As case numbers skyrocketed in early January, the unions representing King County’s public defenders and correctional officers joined forces to sound the alarm about deteriorating jail conditions that have left inmates unable to attend court hearings and overworked guards sleeping in empty cells. The unions asked the county to immediately stop booking people into jail or issuing warrants for nonviolent offenses, and to release everyone currently held in jails for nonviolent offenses.

Elbert Aull, a felony attorney with the King County Department of Public Defense, told council members that the constant “churn” in and out of King County jails has exacerbated the spread of the virus behind bars. Aull added that many defendants will have their cases dismissed by a judge or dropped by a prosecutor once they make it to court. “Implementing booking restrictions would mean that people who are going to be released anyway won’t sit in jail for half a week while they wait for a judge or prosecutor to do the inevitable,” he said.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg countered that the county has already reduced the county’s jail population dramatically, from roughly 1,900 to 1,350, and argued that those who remain in jail are incarcerated for good reason. More than 70 percent of jail inmates in King County, Satterberg said, are charged with either a violent crime or a “serious” felony like violating a protection order; all but 12 of the 1,350 people in county custody face felony charges.

Council president Claudia Balducci, who previously ran the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, also argued that the council could hire more corrections officers. “Whatever we do temporarily will not be fixed long-term until we can get staffing to where it needs to be,” she said.

“It is always the department’s intent to provide excellent customer service,” DSHS director Babs Roberts told the committee, but “in order to provide the service levels this bill demands, DSHS must have adequate, modernized infrastructure and sufficient staffing levels in place, and we don’t.”

3. The state Department of Social and Health Services responded briefly to legislation that would force the agency to improve access to its services during a meeting of the state house’s Housing, Human Services, and Veterans committee on Tuesday, but did not come out against the proposal. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) would require DSHS to reduce phone hold times to 30 minutes or less, reopen its service centers to walk-in clients, and “ensure that clients may apply for and receive services in a manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, [including] needs related to technology, language, and ability.” If DSHS failed to meet any of those standards, the bill would prohibit the agency from cutting off clients’ benefits.

“It is always the department’s intent to provide excellent customer service,” DSHS director Babs Roberts told the committee, but “in order to provide the service levels this bill demands, DSHS must have adequate, modernized infrastructure and sufficient staffing levels in place, and we don’t.” Last week, bill cosponsor Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola that she sympathized with the agency’s staffing crunch, but added that the agency has not asked the legislature for funding to help them recruit and hire more workers.

Catholic CommunityDan Wise told the committee, which Peterson chairs, that the 4,000-employee organization she represents has faced challenges similar to those at DSHS. “I totally understand the difficulty of hiring and maintaining a trained workforce,” Wise said. But, she added, CCS has “continued to offer in-person services” throughout the pandemic. “It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been safe. It has been absolutely necessary, because I know that if we limit our in-person service like DSHS has done, the people who fall thru the cracks are in the depths of poverty.” The bill is scheduled for a second committee hearing at 10am on Friday, February 4.

4. Mayor Bruce Harrell announced three new additions to his administration on Tuesday. Former mayoral candidate (and ex-state legislator) Jessyn Farrell, who endorsed Harrell after failing to make it through the 2021 mayoral primary, will head up the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, which deals with overall environmental policy in the city.

Markham McIntyre, the current vice president of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the head of CASE, the Chamber’s Amazon-backed independent expenditure committee, will direct the Office of Economic Development. CASE sat out the most recent election after its attempt in 2019 to unseat left-leaning city council members, including Kshama Sawant, backfired spectacularly; in 2017, the business group spent more than $600,000 to help former mayor Jenny Durkan get elected.

Greg Wong, an attorney at Pacifica Law Group, will lead the Department of Neighborhoods. According to the announcement, Wong is a former schoolteacher who “led school levy campaigns, helped establish the City’s high-quality, affordable preschool program, and served in executive board roles with several community nonprofits.” He is the only one of the three directors announced Tuesday who will replace a permanent, rather than am interim, department head; former DON director Andrés Mantilla had already told the Harrell team that he was leaving prior to Tuesday’s announcement.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer

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