Week in Review: March 5, 2021 - with Erica Barnett

Week in Review: March 5, 2021 - with Erica Barnett

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.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii. Find today’s co-host, Erica C. Barnett, @ericacbarnett. More information is available 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.