Sawant holds political rally disguised as committee meeting

This evening Council member Kshama Sawant held a special meeting (video) of her Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renter Rights Committee. According to the agenda,  the meeting was to discuss “Human Service Department (HSD) funding cuts to the women’s homeless service programs operated by the Women’s Housing, Equality, and Enhancement League (WHEEL) and the Women’s Referral Center.” And it was, but not quite the way you’d expect.

Last summer, HSD announced that they were bidding out for the first time in a decade the bulk of its contracts for homeless services, $30 million in total. In November when the funding decisions were announced, the department had found another $4 million to add to the resources available. But as expected there was also bad news: some service providers who had been under contract to the city for years either had their funding reduced or cut entirely.

Among those who didn’t receive funding:

  • Shelter providers SHARE/WHEEL;
  • the Women’s Referral Center;
  • the Urban Rest Stop in the University District;
  • some hygiene centers.

Sawant has objected loudly to these decisions. in December she sent a letter to Mayor Durkan and HSD Director Catherine Lester registering her complaints, and she organized tonight’s meeting and a follow-on one to discuss the situation. Tonight’s agenda was specifically focused on SHARE/WHEEL and the Women’s Referral Center. In case you thought it might be a thoughtful, balanced, discussion of the pros and cons of the RFP process and how it might be improved, think again. Sawant made it clear from the missive she sent out to her followers last week that this was a political rally, with the goal of reversing the decision not to fund these organizations.

Having made clear what the meeting would be like, Sawant’s other committee members, Council President Bruce Harrell and Council member Debora Juarez, both skipped it. HSD also got the message: Sawant began the meeting by noting that she had invited HSD to the meeting but they had declined to participate.  Council member Lisa Herbold stayed for the first hour or so, and as she left mentioned that she was considering trying to amend a separate expenditure bill on Wednesday to restore the providers’ funding.

But with a room full of faithful followers, Sawant invited representatives of the unfunded providers to sit around the committee table and rant about the RFP process and results. Their comments, and public comments from the audience, were entirely predictable as the group worked itself into a full frothy anger. Sawant played it for its full value, speechifying at the beginning, middle and end to rally her “movement” to call her colleagues and demand their support for restoring funding — as well  as for a progressive tax on big business.

As if that weren’t enough, the band played them out. I’m not kidding; there was an actual band in Council Chambers, and Sawant cued them to play a few songs as she adjourned the meeting.

So that was the spectacle. Let’s look at the substance: who are the providers that didn’t get funded, and did HSD make a wise decision?

SHARE and WHEEL are respectively men’s and women’s basic overnight shelters that are largely self-organized by current and formerly homeless people.

The Women’s Referral Center is run by Catholic Housing Services. Here’s the description from its web site:

The Women’s Referral Center is a safe, welcoming place where women can request shelter referrals and transportation to nightly shelters. In partnership with multiple service providers, the Women’s Referral Center refers 180 women nightly to 15 area shelters. Evening meals and hygiene services are also available. The Women’s Referral Center operates from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every night of the year.

HSD made it clear in the RFP that it intended to follow the guidance from its outside consultants, as articulated in the city’s Pathways Home plan, to move away from funding “basic” shelters toward “enhanced,” low-barrier shelters. Common aspects of basic shelters include:

  • overnight only (intake at 6-8pm, closing at 6-7am);
  • mats on floors or basic cots;
  • little or no storage for persons’ possessions;
  • no pets allowed;
  • no ability to take in partners together;
  • few other services available (food, showers, other hygiene services).

In contrast, low-barrier enhanced shelters tend to offer more of the following:

  • open 24 hours;
  • cots or beds (no mats on floors);
  • storage available for possessions;
  • space for pets;
  • partners welcome;
  • hygiene services;
  • meals or other food.

Data shows that unsheltered people often refuse offers of basic shelter, because it separates them from their pets, partners and possessions and still kicks them back out on the street the next morning. They are more likely to accept offers of enhanced shelter, and enhanced shelter is more effective at helping to stabilize homeless people as a first step to getting them into treatment services transitional housing, or permanent housing.

SHARE and WHEEL are basic overnight shelter providers. Pets are not allowed; SHARE offers storage, while WHEEL doesn’t. SHARE insists on sobriety. WHEEL offers mats on the floor, and doesn’t have showers. Some SHARE shelters offer showers.

HSD stayed true to their word: through the RFP it expanded the number of enhanced shelter beds available. In the process it substantially cut the number of basic shelter beds it is funding.


HSD Shelter Funding Awards 2017-2018
Year Basic Beds Enhanced Beds Total Beds Total Cost
2017 964 749 1713 $11,867,981
2018 220 1244 1464 $16,264,881
Change -744 495 -249 $4,396,900

And this is the positioning that Sawant is using to protest cutting funding for SHARE and WHEEL. She said this evening that she has no complaint with any of the organizations that received funding, but she doesn’t believe that it makes sense to cut beds when the size of the homeless population is so much larger than the number of beds available.

There are a couple of reasons why this isn’t a strong argument. First, as mentioned before, basic shelter beds aren’t great investments, and aren’t well liked by homeless people. According to AllHome, the homeless response coordinator for King County and the keeper of statistics, utilization of emergency shelter beds in the county in 2017 was 82%. Assuming Seattle’s numbers are consistent with the county-wide ones , that means on an average night 308 of the 1713 funded by HSD were empty. That’s more than the 249 net decrease in total beds between 2017 and 2018. In the meantime, the quality of the shelter space available improved substantially, and the overall spend on emergency shelter increased by $4.4 million. HSD’s overall spend on homeless services increased from $56.5 million in 2017 to $63.8 million this year.

Second, SHARE and WHEEL are problematic organizations, and for that reason alone HSD may have decided not to fund them. They have a long history of publicly demanding funding and stirring up protests if the city or county doesn’t bow to their demands.  Two years ago, HSD found their financial situation to be dire. In addition, they were caught using an unlicensed accountant.

Both SHARE and WHEEL submitted RFP applications that carried a tone of defiance. In particular they bristled at the notion of being held to a performance standard for the number of people who exit their shelter into permanent housing. They lowballed their expected rate of exits, and only after being denied funding did they come back and declare that their actual rate was much higher.  SHARE/WHEEL and other providers are somewhat justified in protesting over-reliance on exit statistics; doing so encourages gaming the system, in a practice called “creaming,” in which providers choose easier-to-serve homeless people to bring into their shelter in order to inflate their success rate. They also raise the issue that the chronic housing shortage in the city is currently the most significant impediment to placing homeless people into permanent housing; even the city’s vaunted Navigation Center is struggling with exits to housing for that reason. That said, providers — including SHARE and WHEEL — seem entirely unwilling to entertain the notion that they should be held to any performance standards at all.

The case for denying funding to the Women’s Referral Center is more difficult to make, and HSD has yet to articulate a clear argument. It may simply have been that with limited funds there were too many other, better, providers and the bar was simply too high. Sawant and the provider community have positioned the HSD results as particularly harsh on program serving women, even as it intentionally focused more resources on serving Native Americans, immigrants and people of color. Last Friday, HSD tried to counter that narrative by putting out a press release detailing all of its investments in programs and services for homeless women. HSD put out a separate release earlier in the week listing its strategy around hygiene services to counter criticism that the RFP denied funding to some existing hygiene centers.

The politics in Sawant’s battle to restore funding are complicated and nuanced.  Under the Council’s new committee structure, Sawant now oversees HSD (last year it was Sally Bagshaw). That means she can continue to devote substantial public airtime to this issue (and other issues such as “sweeps” of unsanctioned camps) by holding committee hearings. But Sawant has been reluctant to critique HSD Director Catherine Lester, and in fact has publicly praised her. In the case of the RFP, she has instead laid blame upon former Mayors Murray and Bagshaw, and is now criticizing Mayor Durkan for not restoring funding. She does (incorrectly) give Durkan credit for allocating “bridge funding” to give the providers who lost funding until June to find other sources of funding or plan otherwise; the original announcement of the RFP results from HSD in November (when Burgess was still mayor) made clear that bridge funding would be made available.

Sawant is also misrepresenting HSD’s reason for not funding SHARE and WHEEL, blaming it upon a shift within HSD to a focus on permanent housing (rather than a shift from basic to enhanced shelters).

Sawant has stated that she intends to introduce a mid-year budget amendment to restore funding for unfunded programs, planning to reallocate “underspend” from other city departments to cover it. She is also using this controversy to continue to push for a progressive “head tax” on Seattle’s largest businesses.

What isn’t clear is whether a majority of her fellow Council members are buying into her narrative. Herbold seemed sympathetic tonight, and Sawant began the meeting by reading a supportive letter from Council member O’Brien who spent the evening at the MHA public hearing instead.  But the other six Council members have no great affection for Sawant and limited patience for her antics. They certainly won’t like that she turned her committee meeting into a political rally. The first test of their support for subverting the RFP process may come on Wednesday, if Herbold indeed attempts to divert proceeds from the “Communications Shop” property sale to restore funding for these organizations.

You can watch the full video of the meeting on Seattle Channel.


  1. Numerous complaints have been filed on Sawant with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission over behavior such as this. The SEEC has given Sawant a pass every time, claiming that everything she does is within the legitimate sphere of what elected officials may do, and holding, moreover, if they were to sanction her for this behavior, it would have a chilling effect on political discourse within the Council chamber.

    It sounds bizarre, I know, but such is the Commission’s logic. I’ve read their rulings and been there when they were deliberating over the question. Needless to say, Sawant has taken the SEEC’s failure to sanction her as a green light to do even more of what she does.

    –David Preston, editor
    Safe Seattle (FB)
    The Seattle Politics Page (FB)
    Recall Mike O’Brien
    The Blog Quixotic (

    1. At the end of the day it will be up to the voters of District 3 to decide in two years whether they approve.

      1. Unless she is using public resources for her political campaign. I know that is illegal in the federal system, I am sure that would be illegal even in Seattle.

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