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caption: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a news conference during the summer of 2020. Durkan and the governor of Washington state told reporters that U.S. officers sent to protect federal buildings in the city have left.
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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a news conference during the summer of 2020. Durkan and the governor of Washington state told reporters that U.S. officers sent to protect federal buildings in the city have left.
Credit: AP

Mayor Durkan on homeless encampments and the Navigation Team

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan joins us on Thursdays to take your calls.

This is an edited transcript of Ross Reynolds' interview with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on Thursday, August 20, 2020.

What happens when the eviction ban is lifted at the end of the year with rising homelessness, decreasing budgets, the defunding of the navigation team -- what will be the city's new plan to help people who may face eviction if they can't pay all the back rent? Correct me if I'm wrong, but this ban on evictions doesn't mean that it's forgiven. It means on the first of the year when the ban runs out, people are gonna have to pay all that back rent. How can people do that in this current economic situation?

I think there's a bunch of things that are gonna have to be woven together. First, we will have to assess at the end of the year where we are in terms of the economic outlook for our area and what kind of support renters need. Evaluate whether the moratorium continues.

I'm hopeful that both the state and the federal government will be able to step up with not only renter moratoriums, but more rental assistance and more home help for the mortgage holders of the people who are actually renting the unit. So I think there's still a lot of work to be done on this. And it's got to be at every level of government.

It sounds like you're saying Seattle can't do that much without that federal and state help.

We can't. There's only so much that the city can do on its own. But the scale of this is such, and frankly, because it is a national issue and a statewide issue, it cries out for those resources being put to work for people.

The governor announced this morning, we're doing just okay in fighting the pandemic. The reproduction rate is hovering around R=1, meaning each person with Covid-19 is giving it to one other person. But he was talking statewide. Could you update us on the latest on Covid-19 in Seattle? Do we have any information, breakouts by neighborhood?

The good news is that we're better than we were a couple of weeks ago, when rates were increasing significantly and that R rate, the number was higher than 1. We've now plateaued and are decreasing a bit but the governor said, we're not doing as well as we need to be doing long term.

And I think that particularly when the weather was nice, people were gathering more. We really have to know that this virus is with us for a very long time and we've got to really increase our efforts to continue wearing face masks, to wash our hands, to not have those gatherings and shared foods because those are the places we're seeing some of those larger transmission events.

Can you break any news for us?

Well, no, but I do want to follow up on one thing: you won't believe it, but it's time to start thinking about your flu shot. One of the big risks that public health officials are worried about is Covid and flu this season. And we have so many people hospitalized every year because of flu. Plus, if you get the flu, you might be more susceptible to Covid. So flu shots will be available next month. People should try to get them early this year.

Small businesses are hurting economically. They've reopened but not everyone has been following the rules. What is the city doing to help people report business safety violations anonymously so that they could be dealt with?

We have a number of ways that people can report it, as does Seattle/King County Public Health. I don't have the phone number, but I can get that to you. (ed. note: Contact the King County COVID-19 Business and Community Information Line, Monday – Friday, 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM at 206-296-1608.)

But we're really trying to do education more than enforcement. These small businesses have been struggling mightily. Some of them are blatant violations, but mostly it's because people -- we need to let them know what the rules are, go in there, so they can continue their business, workers continue to have the jobs, and people have a place to go.

But we have to make sure that people are complying with these rules because we've seen a few outbreaks in our state but a number of outbreaks in other states where people don't follow the rule.

Despite a sweep last week, a homeless camp has been reestablished at the Cal Anderson Park shelter -- the area that was in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone. Organizers there are pleading for social service help and they say all the city is doing is sending police. What's the city's stand on the homeless camp and the Cal Anderson Park shelter?

The city's doing a lot more than just sending in police. We've been working with people in and around Cal Anderson Park since the protest area was cleared and there's a number of people who have set up camp there. They keep breaking into the city building, the shelter, and there's been a lot of damage done as well in the park. We had some damage done to the reservoir access point. So there's a lot of public health and safety issues related to that park.

We will continue to work with people and offer services to those who are unsheltered and needing to come inside and needing other support and services. We have activated a range of city contractors to work with people to make sure we can give them the support and services they need. But the shelter there is not open, the park is is closed. And there's still work we need to be doing to make those city water access points safe.

Now, we heard -- this is a few days ago, I'll admit that -- someone who's working there with the folks who are in that homeless camp, saying that no, the city is not sending social workers and pleading for the city to send social workers. Are you saying that that's not true?

It's inaccurate. And the other thing is there's a mixture of people.

Obviously, there's a number of people in the Capitol Hill area who are experiencing homelessness, and many of those people have been for not just months, but years. And we're doing all we can to reach out and offer people services. There's additional people who have just come to sleep in the park as they attend protests in the Seattle area. So there's a mixture of people there, but again, we need the park closed so we can continue to do the work to fix the water access and some of the other damage done this summer.

We want to reopen that park so people can enjoy it. It's one of the most dense neighborhoods there is in Seattle. And we want to make sure that people can enjoy it but we can't -- iIt's not right for people to break into the shelter itself and continue to do that even when they're told not to.

Joe in West Seattle: How can we work with the city council and have a bit more of a collaboration. I just feel like so much of the city is at odds with each other. It seems like you're pitted against the council against former police chief Best. And it just seems like we're doing lots of infighting and a lot of the recommendations that are put up seem very polarizing. I'm just wondering, how can we get more to the middle? How can we have some moderation and how can we be more collaborative as a city?

Reynolds: It's a good question. Joe, I asked it last week. And at that time, Mayor Durkan, you said, well, I've been talking to individual council members. Any progress since then on getting the city council and yourself on the same page?

I do think we're making progress. I think council and I will have some things jointly that we can announce. We're still working through other issues. There are some disagreements on approaches and on policy, but I do believe Joe, you're exactly right. Our city needs us to pull together and work together even where we disagree. Yes, we should say where we disagree, but then we should find a way forward on that. There's too much at stake here. And there's too many challenges in the city for that not to happen.

Though while there will continue to be some disagreements, I'm hoping that we can move beyond those to get to a process where we actually sit down and bridge those gaps.

Beyond what's going on in Cal Anderson Park, anybody who lives in Seattle neighborhoods here in Ballard or elsewhere has noticed a lot more tents on medians during the pandemic. What is Seattle doing about them?

At the beginning of the pandemic, obviously the CDC gave guidance that they thought that -- absent some extenuating circumstances -- that it was better to leave people in place than to move encampments. That public health framework obviously has to be balanced against other public health concerns and public safety concerns. And so the city has moved very few encampments during this period of time because of those restraints.

ut there are encampments that pose either public safety issues, or public safety and public health issues -- like there was in Ballard when we moved the encampment that had both public health Covid-related and Hepatitis-related, and there were public safety issues. We continue to see those and it's one area where I think the council and we have to work together better. Because the budget they passed, eliminated funding for the navigation team and for those resources in the Human Services Division that can actually work with people experiencing homelessness and bring them inside.

So I'm hoping that we can reach some accord on that because I have had, in the last two weeks, I've had town halls with Lake City, and with SoDo and I heard loud and clear from people that they're very anxious that we won't have the ability to move those encampments that really do pose public health or public safety impacts on those communities.

Now the navigation teams were the groups that were going to go in and talk to folks in the camps and try to find them other housing. And maybe police would come in also to move them along. But defunding included defunding the navigation teams, right? So what's the status of them right now? Are they out working? Are they going to homeless camps on medians and talking to people, trying to get them into housing.

One of the things we're working on is what we do if council's budget is final. Because they very clearly ended the resources for us to be able to move any encampments, period, full stop.

And as we see the proliferation of tents and encampments in the city, I think I have heard loud and clear that people want us to continue to work to bring people inside and to not have those encampments in every place in the city. So we have to continue to find a way to get those resources. The budget that the City Council passed, eliminated them. I'm hoping that we can have some conversations on what the plan is to actually provide those services.

I got a note here that says the city has moved six encampments since the beginning of the pandemic. Is that about right?

I thought it was four, it could be four or six, I'd have to get the exact number, but it's that few, in comparison to what we were doing before the pandemic, which was removing a number of obstructions in public right of ways and parks.

Christian in Capitol Hill: As a runner, I've run all over the city. I also cycle a lot. And I see lots of stuff that I would almost bet the farm that city council members rarely see, which is the underbelly of the city. And that would include tons of graffiti, lots of trash. Why don't we have a better public restroom system in this city? And two, have we pulled back on or is the city just overwhelmed by the graffiti and the trash that is popping up all over the city?

We are seeing more of it and it's from a number of things. Number one, it is related to the proliferation of encampments and tents. It's more difficult for us to collect the trash. We still do. It's also related to the fact that during the pandemic, some of our crews, particularly road crews have been reduced in number because of people who can't work during the pandemic.

The graffiti has increased significantly. And it is only graffiti on public lands that we can address with our public resources. So we've been trying to partner with businesses as well to see how we can reduce and remove that graffiti quickly.

And also with the state, which controls all of the highways and the things next to I-5 and I-90. So I agree we need to be doing more on that front.

But again, it's a reason why just cutting the resources we had, to try to give services to and deal with encampments that might prevent some kind of public health or public safety impact, was not a plan. You can cut, but you have to have a plan because this issue is not going away. We have to be looking from neighborhood to neighborhood and thinking about how we can address this very real issue.

If someone's private business gets graffitied, the city doesn't really have the means to come in and help them clean it up?

That's correct. The graffiti on a private businesses is that private business or homeowner's obligation to clean up. But we've been trying to find ways to partner with the graffiti companies that we have and assist neighborhoods and businesses where there's a particular amount.

For example, after the protest area and Capitol Hill was cleared, we reached out to a lot of businesses to see what we could do with abatement. We did a similar thing in Chinatown-International District because there's a number of historical buildings there, that it's particularly challenging to get graffiti off of.

The second question that we had from Christian was about public restrooms. I see that the Portland Loo is in operation here at the Ballad Commons Park, but I'm sure you see the same thing: people living on the street, where are they doing their business? Is there some place for them to go?

First [at the beginning of the pandemic], our libraries and community centers all closed and that eliminated a number of public restrooms that were available to people. So then we worked with the library and library staff to reopen libraries, open restrooms in all the parks, and open them in other public places. Most businesses that closed sometimes also provided those restrooms, so there was a huge gap. But in the park system, for example, it isn't just as simple as leaving the restrooms unlocked. You have to have someone who will clean and maintain them. That proved to also be more difficult during a pandemic, both because of the health exposure issues for the employees that would be cleaning. Also because we had fewer people on our crews, either because they were on Covid leave themselves or because they were working staffing some of our homeless shelters. So it is a challenge for the city. And it is a very real need.

I see that the Ballard library has its restrooms open. I know the library isn't an official part of the city, but are all public libraries opening up their restrooms to people?

Not all of them. But we worked with the library to get Ballard and some of the other targeted ones open as well.

We also have purchased hygiene stations so that we put those in areas where we we know that there's a significant number of people experiencing homelessness. And those have both hand washing stations and restroom facilities. And a few of them also have showers.

So we're trying to add additional services as we go into the fall and the winter, because we know that's a particularly difficult time for people experiencing homelessness.

Maura in Seattle: Is there a plan for increasing housing availability for people living unhoused, because a reason for not wanting the Nav Team to be defunded is because they were able to help get people into housing and into shelters. And then the second question is, I have been working with two sites that have hygiene stations from public health that are going to be removed next week, because there's no longer any Covid cases. And I think that it's wrong to remove a hygiene station from an encampment and I was wondering how we can get funding from the city to keep those two hygiene stations in place.

Reynolds: Where are they?

They're in the South Park neighborhood and then on 3rd and Royal Brougham Way near the Mariners stadium.

I will raise that with Seattle/King County and with our own HSD to see what's happening with those hygiene stations. It may be that they're relocating them to where they think there's additional need or greater need, but we'll look into that.

And on housing, we need more housing of every type. We were fortunate this week to be able to announce several hundred units of new permanent supportive housing that will be built using new tools so that can be brought online quicker.

It is clear that that is the best route we have to really stabilize people who are experiencing homelessness. In the three years that I've been mayor, we've announced over a billion dollars of new affordable housing, and that's still not enough. So we know we need to scale as quickly as we can affordable housing and permanent supportive housing but we can't do it alone as a city. It's why I supported a regional effort. I think every city in King County should provide resources for people experiencing homelessness and enough affordable housing in their own cities.

Coming up later in the show, we're gonna be talking about vacation in the pandemic. Have you been able to even think about a vacation? Or if not, what are you doing to decompress?

I have not yet but I'm hoping that that day arrives.

This year?

This year. Look, it has been a really tough year for everybody. And I think that as mayor of a big city that was the first in Covid-19 with no guidebook, we were just doing things that normally, you had a federal government to help you and we didn't.

And then I was thankful to have the partnership of Seattle Public Health/King County, the county executive, the governor and the mayors of Tacoma and Everett. But it is unprecedented. Global pandemic still here with us. Biggest economic crisis we've had in our city's history. And now a civil rights reckoning. So it has been enough to keep me more than busy.