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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Seattle may expand plan to help downtown homeless

Mayor Mike McGinn has requested $1.5 million to expand the Center City Initiative aimed at providing social services to chronic low-level offenders downtown instead of prosecution. Some say the approach shows great promise, but the City Council says it hasn’t seen any results yet.

Seattle Times staff reporter
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Ramazan Senturk, the owner of a hot-dog stand on the edge of Westlake Park, gets angry talking about the transients and drug dealers who camped in the city park all summer, blocked sidewalks with their backpacks and dogs, and went to the bathroom in the alley behind his hole-in-the-wall grill.
“This is our Times Square. New York City cleaned up Times Square. Why can’t we do that?”
But his solution might surprise some people. Senturk, a native of Turkey who has run Dog in the Park since 2005, said he’d like to see the chronic street offenders get help. If they urinate behind his shop, he said, it’s because the city hasn’t provided a public restroom for the busy park. And they might move on if they had a better place to sleep.
“We want them taken care of with dignity. We have a problem. Are we going to take care of it?” he asked.
Mayor Mike McGinn has proposed funding in his 2014 budget for several programs developed through the Center City Initiative that would provide outreach and social services to low-level offenders instead of criminal prosecution. He’s also proposed funding an additional 15 police officers next year.
A coalition of more than 30 advocates for the mentally ill and homeless, as well as King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, public defenders, business and tourism executives and downtown neighborhood leaders sent a letter to the City Council on Wednesday urging that they support the budget request.
The intensive outreach approach is currently being tried in a privately funded pilot project in Belltown. It hasn’t yet been evaluated, but members of the Center City Roundtable, who have been meeting over the past year to come up with solutions to the chronic problems downtown, are united around the strategy. They say it promises to address the root causes of troubling behavior and provides an alternative to expensive court hearings and incarceration that they say does little to change offenders’ conduct.
But in an initial hearing on the budget request earlier this month, City Council members questioned whether there was any evidence that the approach was working. And they wondered who in the city was going to be in charge.
“Who owns this?” asked Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Public Safety Committee. He said no one has documented the level and types of disorder downtown or set out metrics to measure progress. “We’re throwing more money at an uncoordinated effort.”
Councilmember Mike O’Brien was more positive about the new approach, but he also observed, “It’s a little like building the airplane while you fly it.” Still, he said, there wasn’t any other proposal on the table to address the persistent problems.
“I don’t want to tell downtown businesses that they have to wait another year,” O’Brien said. The City Council will finalize the 2014 budget Nov. 25.
McGinn’s challenger in the mayor’s race, Sen. Ed Murray, also supports expanding the initiative to help people downtown get access to housing and treatment. Murray has proposed adding 25 officers.
Most of McGinn’s budget request — $1.5 million — would go to expand the Belltown pilot project. Known as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), the program has been operating with private grant money for almost two years and has served about 150 people.
It allows police to divert low-level drug dealers and prostitutes who are amenable to treatment into intensive case management and wraparound services, such as housing, drug and alcohol treatment and mental-health care. Criminal charges can still be filed if the problem behavior doesn’t stop. The case managers meet regularly with prosecutors and police to monitor the offenders’ progress.
The mayor’s budget proposal would expand the program throughout downtown, and into Pioneer Square and Chinatown International District.
An additional $208,000 in the budget request would help buy services for people who either aren’t committing crimes or have a criminal history that would disqualify them from the LEAD program.
Advocates say the funding would be enough to address the estimated 500 people living on the streets downtown. And though the Belltown pilot project has not yet been evaluated, they say the approach — intensive case management and wraparound services — has been proven to be effective.
“When you’ve got resources to offer people, it makes a tremendous difference in our ability to engage people and change behavior,” said Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which provides outreach, housing and treatment to the mentally ill homeless.
Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the Public Defender Association, which is managing the LEAD program, said that in the traditional arrest, prosecution and jail model to deal with offenders, most of the money is spent on lawyers. In the LEAD program, she said, 50 percent of the money is spent on direct services.
“If you can engage up to 10 times as many people with the same amount of money, that’s a much bigger impact,” she said.
The LEAD approach, with police making the decision to divert offenders from prosecution, is unique in the country, but already is generating interest from other jurisdictions who see it as a way to reduce criminal justice costs and improve offenders’ chances to turn their lives around.
The program’s intensive outreach and coordinated team case-management approach uses some of the same strategies that worked in the effort to clean up Times Square in New York over the past decade.
Don Blakeney, executive director of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, worked from 2007 to 2009 for the Times Square Alliance, a neighborhood business support group that partnered with the nonprofit Common Ground to provide intensive outreach, case management, housing and treatment to the people living on the streets in New York City.
“At our board meetings, our director would talk about these people and their issues by name. Seattle still isn’t there yet,” said Blakeney.
Hobson also is familiar with the outreach work in Times Square, but noted that the program was successful, in part, because New York City and state funded 30,000 new units of subsidized housing. Seattle’s own housing levy, he said, hasn’t been able to keep up with the rising population of homeless people who have lost jobs to the recession, houses to foreclosure and health care to state and federal cuts.
“No 10-year plan has been able to shut those spigots producing new homelessness,” he said.
At Westlake Park this week, the campers included a homeless couple who go by the street names Ravin and Thorn. Both say they found work in a booming oil town in North Dakota, but they nearly froze last winter in a small trailer and said the high cost of living offset their wages. Both say they’d work if they could find jobs. Ravin said he’s been turned down repeatedly because of a decade-old robbery conviction.
Thorn said they’ve been sleeping under an awning at Nordstrom. During the day, she said, they hang out at Westlake because they’re visible.
“If something happens, there’s always someone nearby,” she said.
Ravin said it's a waste of time for police to write tickets to homeless people for sitting on the sidewalk, an infraction punishable by a $27 ticket under city law. They sit, he said, because they’re tired of standing, and they don’t have a place to go inside.
Jon Scholes is vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association, which in the past has urged a more law-enforcement focused response to the problem. He said the Center City approach, with its combination of intensive case management and social services, coupled with a greater police presence, has the potential to finally address the street-disorder problem downtown.
He recently visited New York City and also sees parallels between what happened there and what the Center City Initiative is proposing.
“Right now, we have this anonymity where you can walk by these folks and get on with your day. We need to engage with them. We need to end this notion that you can come to Seattle and die in our gutters.”
Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305.