Mar 6, 2021
Today Crystal and co-host Erica Barnett of Publicola give us an in-depth update on homelessness, and what is being done (or not being done) to address the underlying conditions that cause it. And they ask the question: can homelessness be an issue that is solved through a reginal commission, or is it something each city in the Puget Sound needs to innovate around on their own?
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk policy and politics with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Today we're continuing our Friday almost-live show where we review the news of the week.
Welcome back to the program friend of the show and today's co-host, Seattle political reporter, editor of PubliCola and author of Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery - Erica Barnett.
Erica C. Barnett: [00:00:51] Thank you so much for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:54] Thank you for joining us again. There's a number of things that happened in the past week to talk about. I wanted to talk about a story that you have been covering in detail at PubliCola, and that is funding for JustCARE running out and the mayor's office raising objections to taking federal money to run the hotels. So do you want to talk a little bit about just what has transpired?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:01:20] Sure, so there is a program called JustCARE, which is run by the Public Defender Association here in Seattle, that moved about 130 people off the streets in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels. And they are still there - they're staying in hotels with County funding, but that funding is running out on March 15th unless the County and or the City can come up with money to pay for it.
Separately, or separate and related, there is the issue of FEMA funding, which I've covered a lot on PubliCola - which is basically since the Biden administration came in, they have decided to reimburse cities for a lot of different things that are related to the COVID disaster. But one is shelter and specifically shelter in hotels, and everything that's reimbursable is reimbursable at a hundred percent and most things are reimbursable. The mayor's office has expended, I would say an extraordinary amount of energy, raising objections to this idea of taking this federal funding that is a hundred percent reimbursable. So the city could be spending money on hotels - and a lot of cities have done this already, San Francisco actually just expanded their program by 500 more rooms - and getting reimbursement of a hundred percent of the costs that are eligible, which again is most of the costs. This relates to JustCARE's because they say that the City should be seeking FEMA reimbursement to expand the program and to continue the program. But the city says that that's not possible for a whole host of different reasons, or rather the mayor's office says this. City Council disagrees with her position, pretty much across the board. But the upshot, I mean, is basically because the mayor is the one who makes these funding decisions ultimately, we have not sought FEMA funding for hotels, and we have not expanded the city's hotel based shelter program to anything remotely like what other cities on the West Coast are doing.
Crystal Fincher: [00:03:36] Well, and that's really interesting. And one of the questions was - is there just a philosophical difference from the mayor's office and the approach that certainly Council has favored - for putting people without homes up in hotels. Does that seem to be a genesis of some of this conflict?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:03:55] Well, I would say, I mean, I can't sort of get into the mayor's mind and her philosophy. The mayor, I should say, also doesn't talk to me directly. She has not granted a single interview with PubliCola or my previous website - it was called The C Is for Crank - since she became mayor. And I've asked many times, so I'm not going to get into her psychology, but I do think that her policy position has been that hotel based shelters are not a good solution. I mean, she obviously has supported other types of shelters for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. One is congregate shelter - she's opened up a lot of mass shelters run by mostly The Salvation Army. And she has expressed support for tiny house villages, which is another kind of non congregate shelter. But when it comes to hotels, for whatever reason, I mean, since the very beginning of the pandemic, she has vehemently opposed doing the kind of expansion that cities like San Francisco and LA have done.
Now, the City is finally preparing to open its very, very first two hotels, hopefully later this month, at the end of March or so. That's going to shelter around 200 or so people. But I mean, we're talking about a year, more than a year, into this pandemic and we are just now getting the first couple of hotels that are being funded by the City. Now there are other hotels that various service providers have been running on their own and in some cases with City funds, but as far as these kind of federally backed hotels, we're just totally behind the curve on other comparable cities. And I don't know about the philosophical reasons, but certainly the policy has been, and the result has been, that we do not have many hotel based shelters and we have a lot of big mass congregate shelters.
Crystal Fincher: [00:05:57] All right, from what I've read, it seems like the mayor's office has said, Well, this isn't something that FEMA can reimburse in full, so that's why we've decided to not go after it.
Erica C. Barnett: [00:06:13] Yeah.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:14] But the City Council has said, Well, if we can be reimbursed in part, isn't that still worth it? What is the thought behind that argument? Well, I mean, obviously, again the mayor is not sharing her intimate thoughts with you, but what has been I guess, the basis of their argument there?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:06:35] Well, a couple of things and I think it's actually even a little more complicated than that, because the mayor's office insists and has said over and over to me - and this is when I talk about extraordinary energy, I mean, I have just in my inbox just email, after email, after email from the mayor's staff saying why I'm wrong, and why the City Council is wrong, and why service providers are wrong, and why other cities are wrong, and why everybody is wrong, except the mayor. What they would say is that they believe that no services of any kind are reimbursable by FEMA, so staff at the shelters - the mayor's office says are not reimbursable. Just basically any kind of services beyond running a bare bones hotel, where they drop off a meal a couple times a day and provide security and cleaning, the mayor's office says nothing beyond that is reimbursable.
That is not in my report, according to my reporting, according to looking at other cities and according to talking to multiple service providers, that is not true. What is not reimbursable is case management and things like behavioral health care. In San Francisco, that's amounted for about 15% of the total costs. So if you're talking about 85% of the cost of hotels being reimbursable at a hundred percent - so that's free money that San Francisco is receiving. And what they do have to figure out how to pay for is the remaining 15%. And that is not me making up a number. That is actually what the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week as what FEMA has, in the real world, chosen not to reimburse for. I mean, it's just a matter of whether you believe other cities' experience and service providers or whether you don't.
The other objection the mayor's office has raised, beyond whether any of this stuff is reimbursable, is that it's onerous in their words, or in the words of a memo from their budget director - it's onerous to fill out all the paperwork and to kind of dot all the I's and cross all the T's to get FEMA reimbursement. It's extremely complicated. And from everything I understand, that's absolutely true. It's super complicated to get money from FEMA - we all know this. The question is, do you decide to do the hard thing and make that choice to do the complicated paperwork and to do all the documentation, or do you say it's too hard? And so far the City has said it's too hard.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:15] Well, I think, and correct me if I'm wrong - I saw statements from, I think Councilmembers Lorena González and Tammy Morales saying, Yes, it may be hard, but we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to fulfill our obligation to our tax paying residents. And try to do everything we can to jump through whatever hoops necessary to get this reimbursement. Has there been other statements on behalf of the Council, or what have they shown their direction will be with this?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:09:53] Well, I think the Council - I mean, Andrew Lewis, Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, have all kind of expressed this frust... Dan Strauss. This week at Council - have all expressed this frustration with the fact that they can allocate funding, but in Seattle, the way our system works is whatever the City Council budgets in their budget authority, the mayor doesn't have to spend. And so if they were to say, We're going to allocate or we're going to express a policy position that FEMA funding should be used, the mayor's office doesn't have to pay any attention to that. And so I think they're using their bully pulpit to sort of say this should be a priority and it is a priority for us. But if the mayor's office chooses not to spend that money or not to seek that money, the Council really can't do anything. And that's just kind of a quirk of the way our system works. But ultimately it is in the mayor's hands.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:53] And is that where we stand now - the mayor has to decide or gets to decide what the direction will be, so we may not actually pursue getting this FEMA reimbursement?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:11:04] Well, I think yes. And I also think that looking retrospectively, I mean, the problem too is that FEMA funding, and this is one of the objections they raised to the very concept. FEMA funding right now runs out in September - now that could conceivably be extended. But the problem is that we didn't do this from the beginning. I mean, the money was reimbursable at 75% even under the Trump administration. And now it's reimbursable at a hundred percent going all the way back to January 2020, so had we been funding hotels using this money from the very beginning as other cities have done, it would all be reimbursable now. Everything that is eligible would be reimbursable, so it's almost, I don't want to say it's too late to even be having this conversation, but this conversation definitely should have happened earlier. And I think we'd be in a very different place now if we'd had this conversation a year ago, instead of now.
Crystal Fincher: [00:12:06] Yeah, it definitely would have been nice to have earlier. It feels like a lost opportunity and a really disappointing oversight on behalf of the mayor's office. But I guess we are here now and hopefully they will pursue moving forward with that. In a related issue, with the County, I wanted to talk about the Regional Homelessness Authority and where it stands, and what's next, and is there even a next? What's going on with that?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:12:40] Well, as you know, Regina Cannon from Atlanta was offered the position - she's with C4, I think it's C4 Innovations. It's a consulting firm that works on homelessness, and she was offered the position of CEO of the Authority, which is basically the Executive Director. And she turned it down. And the reasons she turned it down are not entirely clear, but my reporting indicates that one is that this entity is maybe ungovernable because the idea of a regional authority is that you bring together all these disparate cities, and unincorporated areas, and Seattle, and the King County government itself. And they're all going to get together and agree on essentially a unified regional approach to homelessness. And we've seen again and again, that many of these cities do not agree with the quote unquote Seattle way of doing things, which has been a huge issue from the beginning.
What are the right solutions to homelessness? Does it include harm reduction based drug treatment, all sorts of things. Right now where they're at is - they're basically going back to the drawing board. When I say they, I mean the implementation board for the Authority. They're going back to the drawing board and looking at the 17 applicants that applied for the position and considering are any of these folks qualified and somebody we would pick to fill that position. There's the runner-up - is a person named Marc Dones, out of Brooklyn. And I believe Brooklyn - in New York City. And they may decide to take the position, but I think the larger question is - is this authority going to work? Is it governable, and is it going to be a better system than we have in place now, which is essentially all the various cities doing their own approaches to homelessness. And I mean, I think the jury is very much still out on that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:15:04] You're listening to Hacks and Wonks with your host Crystal Fincher on KVRU 105.7 FM.
Yeah. And certainly I've noticed, and there's been lots of coverage on other challenges, not even on homelessness, but just on a variety of issues, whether it's transportation, the approach to COVID and quarantine sites - that there have been challenges between the County and Executive's office and communication with a number of cities in the County. Certainly with a number of South County cities feeling like they haven't had an adequate seat at the table for many decisions, so it seems like there are challenges overall in being on the same page regionally. And certainly with this issue, there has been a wide variety of approaches and stances with this. So what does it look like for a path forward? What are the options?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:16:11] Well I mean, one option, the sort of nuclear option would be to say, Look, this regional authority is not going to work. Right now what it consists of is essentially two boards that are - there's like a governing board and an implementation board, and I won't bore you with the details of what the difference is. And there's some staff, but it's very bare bones at this point. It was supposed to be stood up many months ago. And the original plan - they're basically six months behind schedule now. And it's unclear how much this latest setback is going to put them further behind schedule. So nuclear option is saying, You know what, we need to go back to the drawing board. We need to sort of take all the homeless services that Seattle has been doing and retain them at the City of Seattle and beef up the division that actually does that work and is still doing that work now, and figure out a way forward.
And I'll add, this is something I covered this week as well. The Homelessness Division within the City of Seattle's Human Services Department is down to about half of what it was a year ago. And they're doing more work than ever before. And people are leaving because they've gotten layoff notices because of this Regional Authority. And there's just like no certainty, so the more people leave, the more work is left for everybody else, the more burned out everybody gets. And so there's a real brain drain that's happening, as the Regional Authority process kind of continues to stall. Another option is hire somebody from that pool, maybe hire Marc Dones, the runner-up or somebody else who was in the pool, and just kind of keep chugging forward. But I think there's a tremendous amount of frustration among the people who actually provide services to people living on the streets and people living precariously unhoused, because ultimately that's who is supposed to be served by this governance board, governance authority, or the regional authority rather.
And I think it's, I don't know. I think just personally I find these endless conversations about governance and structure and process rather frustrating, because what gets lost is that people are dying on the streets and there are thousands of people unsheltered. And the idea that like, there's going to be a perfect process that the County and the cities come to an agreement on that's going to solve the problem is just an illusion. I mean, it's about spending, it's about how we allocate dollars, and it's about getting people into housing and getting people into services. And I think that just really gets lost and has gotten lost for six months in these just endless discussions about how do we structure everything.
Crystal Fincher: [00:19:14] I think that's an excellent point and true. That we've gotten away from the fundamental reason why we're having these conversations in the first place - is we need to get people into housing. And I almost feel like that getting away from the fundamental issue and talking about the scale of the problem, compounded by the current COVID pandemic and the challenges that we're facing with recent, very cold weather. And just how hostile it is to be outdoors, that this is a real challenge. And lots of people are interested in not necessarily continuing to talk about how we're facing a big, if not even bigger problem, four years after they talked about having bold big solutions that were going to make a big difference. It seems like this is going to be a significant issue once again, leading up into the mayoral elections. And so I guess, how do you see things moving forward in this conversation with the candidates who are running for City and Council positions?
Erica C. Barnett: [00:20:34] Well, what's so interesting to me so far is I get information about polls all the time from - just from readers and people I know who've taken polls. And the issue that all of the polls I have heard about so far ask about - they ask about homelessness, but they also ask about the quote unquote state of downtown, which is I think related to homelessness, but is really conflated with homelessness in these polls. And is going to be a big issue during the campaign. So I think candidates are going to have to answer questions about what are you going to do to quote unquote clean up downtown? And by clean up downtown, I mean, what the sort of dog whistle is there is of homeless people. There's a lot of people living in tents downtown. There's a lot of people living in tents in Pioneer Square and there's just a tremendous amount of suffering and people living unsheltered.
I think that's going to be a huge issue. And I think that the dividing line is going to be sort of what sort of approach are the various candidates going to take to this really kind of neighborhood specific question of cleaning up, quote unquote. Again, I'm putting giant scare quotes around that - downtown. Is the response, Well, the issue isn't downtown, it's homelessness and people congregate downtown for reasons. And if we address those reasons, they will not live downtown. Or is it we need to sweep the parks downtown. There was a big sweep of Denny Park, just north of downtown this week. Is it we need to - I mean, I think we'll hear people saying things like, on the more conservative side, saying things like we need to tell them that they can accept services or be arrested, or told to move along.
And so I mean, this has been a dividing line, I think in recent elections, period. But I think the pandemic and the fact that a lot of businesses have been closed, and unsheltered homelessness has become more visible as we've talked about before. It's visible because we're not moving people from place to place as much. It's not that it was better before and now all of a sudden, we have this huge homelessness crisis. It's that it's visible to us. I think that's going to be the number one issue during the campaign - the sort of joint quote unquote public safety issue of having visible homelessness and the homelessness issue itself.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:15] Yeah. And I really appreciate you putting that in its proper context. In that those big scare quotes around cleaning up downtown, really being just a workshopped PR massaged way to say, What are you going to do to prevent me from having to see people without homes and to see people on the sidewalks? And that's a very different conversation than saying, How are we going to address the issue of people not having homes? How are we going to house these people and put them on a path to stable housing, stable permanent housing. And it is going to be a very big issue. And we hear the different shades of the Seattle is Dying narrative, which very much talks about homelessness as an issue of crime and vagrancy.
And one, homelessness itself being compared to a crime. And two, people without homes being assumed to be hostile and criminal and needed to be dealt with by authorities in some way, instead of helped. They need to be policed or given ultimatums that they need to adhere to and abide by, or they don't have the right to not be in jail. Because they don't have a home or the ability to pay to afford one and so... Oh, no, go ahead.
Erica C. Barnett: [00:24:58] I was just going to add, I mean, to the criminality question - it is absolutely true that people commit survival crimes all the time. I mean, I live next to a store that gets ripped off on a weekly basis. And I'm not saying that those are good crimes, or that it's okay to have a society where people shoplift and sell things in order to survive, or in order to sustain an addiction. That's not a good society to live in. And the root causes are not addressed by sort of saying, Well, the behavior is the problem and we need to police the behavior. No, the behavior is not the problem, the homelessness is the problem, the addiction is the problem. There are root causes to these things. And so this is me editorializing, very strongly, that I do think that we should have a downtown and we should have a city where people are not running shoplifting rings and where people are not stealing things to survive.
But I don't think that the solution to that is criminalizing the root causes of that, which is what you do when you just throw people in jail and don't treat the underlying condition, which may be homelessness, which may be poverty, which may be addiction, or some combination of all those things and more.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:29] Absolutely. And definitely, we don't want anyone to be victimized in any way at any time. It is not more okay for one group to victimize than others. I think we do need to focus on root causes and solutions. And I also think that what is really easy to do and that we see flavors of the same story - is a person who is homeless committed this crime. We see that very often. That crime may be committed by other groups at a much higher percentage than people without homes. And that context is never provided in there either. And so there is also this inclination, more so by some elements of the media than others, to suggest that crime is being driven by homelessness when there are lots of other causes and lots of other perpetrators besides people who don't have homes. But what that does do - by perpetuating stereotypes that certain crimes are committed predominantly by one group of people when that's not the case, is it creates a lot more hostility towards people without homes. It creates, as we've seen, people who don't have a problem going up and harassing, sometimes assaulting, destroying the property, pushing for these sweeps - it creates victimization. And oftentimes we see people who are emboldened by believing what they hear when that's not true.
And so I definitely appreciate you clarifying and speaking out against that and not being part of that problem. I certainly want to underscore, whenever we do talk about this, that the different ways that people talk about it - one, indicate where they're coming from or who their sources of information are. And two, we do need to put this information in the correct context - that we need to solve homelessness, we don't need to clean up downtown. And use that type of terminology for suggesting that we should just get people off of the street. And that you should be suspicious and not happy with people who put this problem in the context of, I want you to prevent me from having to be aware that other people are suffering, as if that in and of itself is suffering.
The suffering is the actual suffering. Having to see the suffering is a signal of how bad that suffering is, and is not in any way justifiable to suggest that someone just shouldn't have to look at it or deal with it. We are responsible for solving this issue and that's where we should go, so that certainly is me up on a soapbox. I'm okay to be on that soapbox, but feel very strongly about that. And again, that type of rhetoric leads to victimization of people who were already in vulnerable positions in the first place. And I do not want to see more of that happening. With that said, we are right about at the time, we could certainly discuss a lot more, but time is preventing us from doing that.
I do appreciate all of you listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM this Friday, March 5th, 2021. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones, Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. And our wonderful co-host today was Seattle political reporter and founder of PubliCola, Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on Twitter @ericacbarnett, that's Erica with a C and on publicola.com. And you can buy her book Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery wherever you want to buy your books. Lots of great independent booksellers here. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii at F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. And now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed.
Thanks for tuning in and we'll talk to you next time.