On Monday of last week, Mayor Ed Murray and Governor Jay Inslee announced a new initiative to comprehensively address the massive unsanctioned homeless encampment in the I-5 Duwamish Greenbelt, better known as “the Jungle.” The announcement kicked off a frenzied response from several directions, including the Seattle City Council, culminating in two hastily-arranged press conferences and a committee meeting yesterday that finally brought some much-needed clarity to the outreach cleanup plan.
The blow-by-blow account of how this has played out over the past ten days makes for good TV news, and indeed most of the local news coverage seems to be focusing on that drama. As usual I’ll post a morning news recap later this morning, including links to all of those stories, and you can go read them. Unfortunately the drama is obscuring two more important topics worthy of our attention: the details of the plan for cleaning up the Jungle, and what the last ten days teach us about the current state of Seattle’s city government.
The driving force behind the plan is a decision by the Mayor that of all the homeless encampments across the city, The Jungle, which contains around 10% of the city’s homeless people, is the highest priority. As a result of that, the city’s limited resources — police, fire, outreach, human services, emergency shelter — should be prioritized to deliver a comprehensive response to close down the Jungle and move all of its current residents to safer places. Murray freely admits that the city does not have adequate resources to do this for all 3000 homeless in the city, but according to his administration’s analysis they do have enough for the Jungle, and have organized to move ahead.
Underlying this, of course, is the Mayor’s conclusion that the situation in the Jungle warrants making it the highest priority. He makes a decent case: citing the city’s assessment led by the Seattle Fire Department, he argues that the Jungle represents both public safety and public health dangers to Jungle residents and the city as a whole. Murray claims those dangers are much higher there than in other unsanctioned homeless encampments around the city. However, not everyone agrees with Murray’s conclusion, including Council member Sally Bagshaw, who in an interview yesterday told me “It’s not my top priority… I would frankly leave people in place until we know who they are and what their needs are, and work on some of the folks that we’ve got out here in the unsanctioned encampments that are driving the neighborhoods crazy.”
Nevertheless, Murray’s approach is to begin with an intense and focused outreach effort to the Jungle’s residents with an offer of services, particularly over the initial two-week period, but beyond that as well. He claims that this has been misrepresented in the media and in the community as 2 weeks of outreach and then a “sweep” of everyone remaining. Murray and his staff assert in no uncertain terms that this is NOT how it will happen; that the outreach will go on as long as necessary for staff to make meaningful engagements to all Jungle residents and with a recognition that it takes time to build trust enough for the homeless to accept offers as well as to understand and personalize those offers to meet their specific needs. Murray insists there is no specific deadline for the outreach phase of the plan. But Scott Lindsay, a special assistant to the Mayor on homeless issues, repeated yesterday a point that he has made before: the importance of providing a “motivation to engage.” For many homeless people the extra motivation of knowing that they can’t stay where they currently are can be enough to convince them to accept an offer of services that they had previously declined.
A regular critique of the outreach efforts is that the offers of shelter are either not genuine, because all of the emergency shelters in the city are full every night, or are not realistic because they don’t address the specific needs of a homeless person: their partners, possessions, and pets; their addiction issues; their mental health issues; and their disabilities. On the former issue, the Mayor’s plan identifies Union Gospel Mission as the lead outreach and services organization, and UGM claims to have 450 shelter beds available immediately for residents of the Jungle. On the latter claim UGM has not made any claims as to be able to handle all of these needs, though its head, Jeff Lilley, has said that they partner with other organizations to redirect people to places where their needs can be better met.
The Mayor made broad claims yesterday that the population of people residing in the Jungle has declined substantially over the past few months, and that contributes to his belief that the City has sufficient resources to make substantive offers of services to all Jungle residents. He misspoke badly, however, in claiming that the population was now down to only about 65 people; his staff corrected that later, explaining that a recent survey counted about 65 structures (e.g. tents) left at the site, but that UGM’s staff has already reached 158 people in the first phase (of three) of their outreach effort. They won’t have a clearer view of the total number of people for another day or two, but their current estimates are somewhere between 200 and 300. UGM’s shelter space can accommodate that, though it’s unclear whether the city’s providers of other human services such as addiction and mental health treatment, can support the increased load. However, the State of Washington has made $100,000 of flexible funding available that can be used to assist some of those for whom shelter is not an option, potentially providing first/last month’s rent on an apartment, or travel assistance to reconnect someone with family members.
Once areas of the Jungle have been cleared of people (however long that takes), city and state staff will come in to clean up the garbage, human waste, needles an other hazards that have accumulated. They also plan to add new access roads for use by both highway maintenance crews and first responders. Much of this work involves heavy equipment, which is why it can’t be done until the area is completely cleared of homeless people.
Murray and his staff have said repeatedly that this is a compassionate, humanitarian effort. Murray described it yesterday as “trying to save lives.” Of the 158 people already reached, 28 of them have accepted offers of services, which is a far higher number than expected. While City Council members seem to sincerely believe that intent, they still remain skeptical of several aspects of the program. Both O’Brien and Herbold asked hard questions of Lilley about the extent to which UGM’s religious affiliation forces homeless people to engage with Christian proselytizing. Lilley responded that while it is a Christian organization, their mission is to help people, not to convert them; they don’t force anyone to pray and they accept people of all faiths as well as agnostics and atheists. Bagshaw also worries that the Jungle cleanup plan is pushing more homeless people down into the International District and Pioneer Square, which just moves the problem around rather than fixing it.
Bagshaw and O’Brien are pushing hard to “memorialize” an understanding between the Council and executive staff on the principles and tactics involved in cleaning up the Jungle, through a resolution. Bagshaw began drafting one last weekend; and Columbia Legal Services, who along with the ACLU have threatened to sue the City and State to stop the cleanup plan, has also drafted a resolution for consideration by the Council. The two are very similar, and based on yesterday’s committee hearing Bagshaw believes that the Mayor’s views are not that far off. Bagshaw expects to meet with the Mayor’s staff today to work on a resolution that both sides can sign.
Which brings us to the second issue: the sorry state of communication between the City Council and the Mayor’s office, and in general the executive branch’s inability to clearly communicate what they are doing.
Murray’s hastily-called press conference yesterday is a clear case in point. On the defensive from the beginning and throughout, and clearly responding to the Council’s and the public’s perceptions of the plan that he and the governor announced the week before, Murray made the situation far worse by mangling statistics.
But the problem extends far beyond the Mayor’s office. The communication failures of SDOT’s Director, Scott Kubly, are well known, particularly as related to Pronto, the city’s bike path network, and the 23rd Avenue construction project. The HALA plan for upzoning urban villages continues to be widely misunderstood by residents. The Human Services Department’s director, Catherine Lester, has an astounding inability to articulate even the most basic data on her organization’s sprawling activities and as recently as yesterday continued to be evasive in her monthly reports to the Human Services and Public Health Committee. And Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light obscured the fact that their NCIS billing system is a year late and tens of millions of dollars over budget.
Much of this can be attributed back to Murray; he has commented before that upon taking office he discovered that the city’s departments are deeply “siloed” and he claims that he is working hard to build connections across those departments. But his approach to external communications is to personally control the narrative from above, often forcing important communication to go through his office. A Council member recently told me that the phrase “I don’t want to get ahead of the Mayor on this” is frequently voiced by the city’s department heads.
The City Council works hard to push back on this by demanding transparency. But it doesn’t help that the City Council is on the opposite end of the spectrum: their modus operandi is extensive consultations with the broad community on everything. This tendency is not just a joke; it’s now an entire standup comedy routine. Community input is a critical part of well-functioning representative government, but it also can be taken too far. A government can fail to be responsive by not listening to its citizens; it can equally fail to be responsive when its desire to listen to its citizens introduces unacceptable delays into every city process.
There ought to be a healthy tension between the executive and legislative branches in city government, keeping faithful to the legislative branch’s responsibility to provide oversight of the executive branch, to control the purse strings, and to write laws that establish principles of well-functioning government. But in the absence of executive branch transparency and effective communication, the City Council can find itself attempting to micromanage through resolutions and ordinances. And that is precisely what we are seeing this week with the plan to address the Jungle. That’s not good governance, and both sides need to step back and have a broader discussion about how to get out of each other’s way.
If they had a better relationship, they would have seen the opportunity in front of them not only to address the situation in the Jungle but also to make a significant stride forward in how Seattle helps its homeless population. Because over the last two months it’s become clear not only that the city has the wrong model for shelters, but also what the right model for shelters is. Shelters need to be open 24 hours a day, and not push people back out on the street from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M. They need to accommodate pets, possessions, and partners. They also need to accommodate people with addiction and mental health issues. When shelters don’t do these things, many homeless people see them as a worse option than being on the street, and refuse offers to move into them. This is no longer a matter of debate; there is ample evidence proving this, and multiple precedents of highly successful shelters in other cities that follow this model.
If you buy into the Mayor’s notion that the Jungle should be a higher priority than other unsanctioned homeless encampments, then it becomes a great opportunity for the city to create a new shelter as a pilot project for implementing this model, one that can prove out the organization, the tactics, and the economics so that it can be replicated by other organizations. Once Seattle figures out how to do this well, it can become the gold standard that the city requires all of its shelter providers to implement. And it’s high time; Murray noted yesterday that the City’s shelter system hasn’t been bid out in over a decade. Pairing a new shelter, utilizing best practices, with the Jungle outreach and cleanup effort, would be a visionary approach to solving a huge problem in the city — in fact several problems.
But instead, today the Mayor’s staff and the Council are arguing about whether porta-potties, garbage bags and needle containers should be distributed to the Jungle now while the outreach is taking place.
The smart Vegas money says that next Monday the City Council will approve a resolution that lays out principles for a humane approach to cleaning up the Jungle. It won’t have everything that the Council wants in it: it likely won’t require trash bags and porta potties in the short term, and it won’t outlaw forcibly removing someone who refuses to relocate. But the Mayor will sign it, and the two sides will have avoided a nasty showdown wherein the Council prohibits any action on cleaning up the Jungle. The work will move forward, and hopefully many people will be helped. But the problems in our city government will remain, and the dysfunctional communications will continue to be an impediment to real progress.