(WSJA recording of Tuesday’s online meeting)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The “hygiene station” blamed as a trouble magnet at Junction Plaza Park won’t be there forever.
That’s the only bit of news that emerged from Tuesday afternoon’s online community meeting with city reps, who refused to acknowledge that safety concerns in the area have escalated since its installation in May, and did not promise solutions.
There were repeated mentions that the city Navigation Team had visited the park – without any mention that Mayor Jenny Durkan has suspended the team, after the City Council‘s vote to cut its funding.
The meeting was organized and hosted by Lora Radford, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association (which helped raise money for the park’s completion a decade ago).
“This is not a discussion about criminalizing homelessness,” Radford clarified at the start – it was meant to be a discussion about what’s happened since the hygiene station went in at Junction Plaza Park in xx.
Participants included (in order of introduction and how their roles were described) City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Department of Neighborhoods rep Tom Van Bronkhorst (whose roles include homelessness and COVID response), Seattle Public Utilities rep Bill Benzer (involved with the hygiene-station program), Mayor’s Office representative Tess Colby (mayor’s adviser on homelessness), Aaron Burkhalter, a LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) project manager who’s working on the program’s West Seattle expansion, Southwest Precinct Operations Lt. Sina Ebinger, and the precinct’s City Attorney liaison, Joe Everett – working on programs that go beyond policing, that might involve coordination of multiple departments, “neighborhood programs that are tough to crack … that can’t be solved with one 911 call.”
The park is “one of our only greenspaces in The Junction,” explained Radford, as well as a site for many events. Since the hygiene station’s installation, “we’ve observed some behavior that’s been (troubling),” and it’s been harder to keep The Junction clean and safe. She first asked Van Bronkhorst how the hygiene station ended up in the park – what was the decision process?
He said the program overall started early this year “in response to COVID-19 … as businesses were closing, there was a lack of access for people who are unhoused” to access hand-washing and toilet facilities – the need for facilities like this is expected to be “short term,” until libraries and businesses and other such facilities reopen. “We went about siting 15 of these stations around the city, trying to make sure we were covering as many areas of the city as possible … where we could site them on or next to city (property). This was one of the second round of sitings; he said “community members and advocates” contacted the city to ask for it. The one initially installed at Westcrest Park was moved to the South Delridge Salvation Army parking lot.
Radford asked Burkhalter what issues were typical if these types of facilities were placed in parks without other services nearby. He said the challenges his program could help with are “at the intersection of what you are talking about … if people are congregating in an area and causing low-level public-safety (problems),” that’s how his program works. The placement of other types of services, though, is outside their scope. He said they see challenges in areas in Burien (where he also works) – they try to come up with a “creative way” to meet people’s needs.
Next, she asked Everett if they have seen a correlation between “low-level crime” and hygiene station sites – he said that analyzing SPD data is not something he’s done in this type of issue. So Radford asked Lt. Ebinger the same question. She said there were seven disturbance calls, two involving weapons, and one assault, plus two drug-dealing calls, since October 1st, in the park vicinity.
Radford asked about the priority level for calls about the park. Depends, Lt. Ebinger said – weapons calls, for example, would be a quicker response – depends on the nature of the call and the time at which it’s happening.
Then Radford went to questions from the WSB comment thread: For Van Bronkhorst, “Do they realize the constant chaos … how it’s affecting nearby residents?” He said they’ve placed hygiene stations around the city “and they get a variety of responses from people … we know they’re heavily used, and appreciated by unhoused people … We have had some sited at locations where community partners have been willing to provide some additional guardianship,” encampments, for example. “Overall the program was developed in a way to provide clean facilities .. they’re cleaned and pumped out every day, restocked by a vendor, and Parks Department staff look at each unit and report whether damage has been done or whether they need additional services. … We know we’re siting these in places where people are living unhoused … people have been living on the street in that area for some time, so the homeless community predated the siting of the station.” That didn’t entirely answer the question, so Radford asked if someone else could speak directly to the problems. Councilmember Herbold spoke up at that point and wondered about staffing from one of the city’s providers, the Millionair Club, and whether they could visit the site and help deal with the behavior that is “interfering with the enjoyment of the park. … is there a more robust staffing model we could consider, working with the Millionair Club?”
Van Bronkhorst added that outreach workers and the Navigation Team, has stopped by in the past, “up to three visits a week in trying to engage with community members there” and offering them services.
What kidn of services would LEAD be able to offer? Radford asked Burkhalter. He said he’s seen “great things happen with positive activation in parks.” He observed that the lack of services is a region-wide challenge, and REACH case managers “are there to do” that kind of help, developing relationships with people, working on everything from housing to behavior feedback. He gave an example of a person pushing a “massive shopping cart” all over Burien, and a case manager was trying to work with him on it. Someone finally suggested getting him a storage unit so he doesn’t have to push all his belongings around all the time.
Burkhalter also said that since his last conversation with Radford, they have a “green sheet in with the council” for a REACH staffer doing that kind of work in The Junction”
Van Bronkhorst introduced Donna Waters from Parks with some additional information. She’s the encampment manager for Parks, as well as the West Seattle district’s overall manager for Parks. “Currently the encampment team that specializes in our encampment program visits Junction Plaza Park Monday and Thursday,” including taking photos, sending information to a data program – another team observes and takes photos other days – the Southwest District cleans the park Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Radfprd voiced surprise at hearing that schedule, saying the park often has an “insurmountable amount of trash.”
Then on to participant Q&A: A park neighbor said she has “called multiple times in the past month,” and her partner put out a fire in the park, but police told them they couldn’t do anything because the court system is not processing misdemeanors currently. When asked what they could do, she said police suggested, “Move.” She mentioned destructive and violent behavior against the facilities in the park. She said she and neighbors have been threatened and harassed.
Lt. Ebinger said that regarding misdemeanors, they can make arrests but previously couldn’t book into jail. But if a crime is committed against a person, assault for example, they CAN book into jail, even if it’s misdemeanor assault. And if someone’s threatening with a weapon, “that’s a felony-level crime … Please continue to call 911.” The neighbor responded that both times they called for “very violent crimes” led to arrests ‘but they were back in the park within an hour … back at their nonsense.” Lt. Ebinger asked for specific dates; the neighbor said it had been “more than a month.” Lt. Ebinger invited offline contact so she could look up the case(s).
Radford asked: Was it the right decision to place this in the middle of a business district, without services, without a bridge? Should it be downtown, closer to shelters, food, mental health? Van Bronkhorst said no, the city needs to provide these services where people are. “Businesses here … and all across the city were closed” and unable to provide facilities access. Van Bronkhorst also said they’re always re-evaluating sitings and that’s going on here; he said they talked to some (unnamed) businesses before installation ‘and they were fine with it,’ and the comments the city is getting now “are part of the review process we’re going through … none of the hygiene stations are meant to be long term.” Originally it was thought they’d be in place through maybe July, August, but things have stretched out.
“Was it sited in the wrong place? No. We have homeless people everywhere in the city. They need services.” declared Van Bronkhorst.
Radford said certainly they’ve had some people in the area but “these are people we’ve never seen before … the hygiene stations attracted brand new faces to The Junction that we’ve never seen before … it attracted the crime, attracted the drug use, attracted the prostitution.”
Another question: Can it be moved somewhere else to stop negatively affecting businesses? Benzer said, “We’re a part of a team, it’s a citywide effort to site where these units go, we’ve been working with people who seem to know better where the need is,” but said making that kind of decision wasn’t in his purview.
Next, Radford posed the question to Waters. “As a city, we’re all responsible … it would have to go to the interdepartmental team” regarding a decision to move it. The neighbor reported that the handwashing station was once thrown into the street; Waters said that hadn’t been reported or seen previously.
For Colby, Radford asked whether other parts of the city are reporting similar issues. Her reply: “We haven’t been able to really establish a specific correlation between the hygiene stations and crime … the presence of homelessness across the city has definitely increased … regarding contact and outreach,” she said, REACH and the Navigation Team have been there.
Colby said they feel very strongly that the ‘critical amenity’ of handwashing and clean toilets is important for unhoused people and to ensure they won’t spread anything to others nearby. “These conversations are a big part of what we take into consideration.”
Dan Austin from the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce said that as a bar owner he would be considered responsible if he hosted an event and some of its patrons brought in something illegal like drug traffic. But the city brought in something that has created ‘a critical situation for the safety of our community’ and he’s not hearing that they’re going to do anything about the illegal activity.
Van Bronkhorst countered, “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic and we still need to provide services to people … if we were in Phase 3,” all the hygiene stations would likely be removed.
“Needles and knives … are a health risk for the public,” countered Austin.
The park neighbor added that it’s not the handwashing station but the portable toilets that “are the issue.”
Waters said that regarding needles, Parks crews “litter-pick” the park for those, and also have a program to respond to needle reports. The neighbor countered that she has had a view of somebody in the park shooting up and “toss the needles over his shoulder.” The needle disposal unit at the hygiene station has been torn away. “How do we prevent (the problem) from happening to begin with?”
None of the panelists replied.
Radford summarized that “there’s obviously a disconnect between the logic of placing a hygiene station in the business district” and the effects it’s having on nearby businesses and residents, “horrific” effects “on top of a pandemic and the bridge closure.” The logic may “sound good on paper” but the logistics seem to be falling short. She vowed to keep pursuing the issue, including organizing other meetings, because something more has to be done, for the sake of the unsheltered people in the park as well as those in the area around it. You can watch for updates on the WSJA webpage devoted to the park situation.