Monthly Archives: June 2017

Questions About the Death of Charleena Lyles


Tonight, the Seattle City Council is holding a special public meeting at 6 PM at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall to hear public concerns about the June 18 killing of Charleena Lyles in her home by two Seattle Police Department officers.

Last week, I posted an article suggesting that the three most helpful targets for activists in the wake of her death were the state legislature (to reform the uniquely impossible legal requirements in our state that shield on-duty law enforcement personnel who misuse deadly force); the federal court overseeing the city’s consent decree that mandates reforms in the Seattle Police Department; and the city’s ongoing contract negotiations with the two unions that represent officers and management within SPD. That’s relevant due to union objections to, among other things relevant to this incident, body cameras, less-lethal weapon requirements, and crisis intervention training.

City council members have no direct influence with any of these. Some are privy to the union negotiations, but even those are managed by the Executive Branch, currently under Mayor Ed Murray; and the negotiations, if they’re happening at all, are held in secret. No city official will comment on them tonight, and nobody from the council or SPD is about to say anything meaningful about the ongoing internal investigation of Lyles’ shooting. We’re unlikely to learn much tonight, and council isn’t relevant to the most immediate, urgent, and achievable activist goals.


There are a lot of unanswered questions about Charleena Lyles’ death – questions that council members and local media need to be asking, too. What follows is a necessarily incomplete list of important ones, along with a couple of suggestions for things the city council can and should do. And to be clear, activists need to keep bringing the heat long after tonight’s meeting has come and gone.

The questions fall in three broad categories.

The Shooting Itself

Because Officers McNew and Anderson have claimed they feared for their lives, and because SPD’s use of force guidelines permit deadly force when an assailant with a knife is within 21 feet (as Lyles was), the officers will likely face no legal consequences for killing Charleena Lyles. But there are still far too many inconsistencies in their accounts that need to be addressed.

What was the knife or knives Lyles was allegedly using? Where did it, or they, come from, and when did she get them?

Did she get behind one of the officers, or between them and the door? Was she shot from behind by one of the officers?

Both officers had batons, and one had pepper spray. Why weren’t they used instead of deadly force?

Did the officers believe Lyles posed a threat to the three children in the room?

Why didn’t officers try to disarm the diminutive Lyles? Why didn’t they simply leave, barricade the door, and call for backup?

Before the Shooting

On June 5, two weeks before Lyles’ death, a similar home visit by SPD officers resulted in a nearly identical turn in her mood. In that incident, she threatened officers with a large pair of scissors. Unlike June 18, she was talked down, arrested, and as a result also had a subsequent appearance in mental health court. All this was noted in SPD’s database and accessed on June 18.

So, first of all, why did officers even respond to her call?

Lyles called 911 to report a suspected home burglary in which she believed an XBox was stolen. It wasn’t a burglary in progress, and it wasn’t an urgent call. Many citizens reporting such burglaries never even get visited by officers; they’re told to fill out a report online, or SPD takes a report over the phone.

Given the very recent history of a threatened attack on officers in her home, why did SPD even send officers to her home again?

Instead, they arrived in 45 minutes, discussing her June 5 incident and mental health status but apparently failing to prepare for the possibility, let alone likelihood, that it might happen again.

Why didn’t the officers meet Lyles in the apartment hallway or outside, where her movements would be more visible and no household objects were at hand (like a kitchen knife) that could be weaponized?

Going inside, why didn’t they have some sort of barrier between themselves and Lyles. Why didn’t they stay near the front door where they could retreat easily if needed?

Why didn’t an officer make sure the kids were moved to a different room, so mom could talk to the officers in private? (And the kids would be safe if mom suddenly had one of her moods.) If there weren’t enough officers, why not wait for backup? Or – again – why were they there at all?

Both officers had SPD’s crisis intervention training; one of them was considered a specialist, with 40 hours of training. None of their actions reflected that training.

Is the training itself deficient? Or is the training fine, but some officers simply don’t take it seriously?

The Social Safety Net

Lost in the shooting itself, and the reality of yet another black life extinguished by white law enforcement, is a local social safety net that failed Lyles at nearly every turn.

Charleena Lyles had four children by multiple fathers, and was pregnant with a fifth. She had a history of substance abuse. She was recently homeless and had been placed in her low-income housing through a nonprofit. Four kids, a pregnancy, and serious poverty are enormously stressful for anyone, even without the onset of serious mental illness. Yet Lyles seems to have had almost no help navigating all of this. The home was a mess.

Why didn’t she seem to have a home helper to help her cope with all the kids and a new home? Where were the fathers, or any kind of community support before she died?

How was she managing financially with a new home (when very recently she didn’t have one) and five mouths to feed? How precarious and stressful was her money situation? Did she have any kind of help with child care, or with navigating the often confusing, intentionally humiliating, and endlessly time-consuming “helping” social service agencies?

What kind of treatment did she have, or not have, for her mental illness? She reportedly had a prescription, but didn’t take the medication because she feared it would impact her pregnancy. That’s a perfectly reasonable, and serious, concern, one any competent health care provider or pharmacist should take pains to avoid – but apparently didn’t. Moreover, many anti-psychotic drugs can help with the illness but leave the patient sluggish and struggling to function – let alone able to manage four young kids. Lyles had every card stacked against her, and very few people seemed to care.

We live in a country where access to health care, especially mental health care, is a catastrophe, especially for poor people. Institutional racism is also a thing here – as it is in every aspect of a social safety net that found a home for Lyles and her children, but apparently did very little to help her cope with the kids, the pregnancy, the poverty, and a debilitating illness that resulted in her lashing out at SPD officers on two separate occasions this month. We know how the second one ended.

What Seattle City Council Can Do

Most of these concerns won’t be relevant in questions to council members tonight. (Though remember that local media, and through them the general public, is also in the room.) But two areas are very much relevant:

Seattle’s Budget

Council members amend and approve the city’s budget; that process for 2018 begins this fall, and emergency supplements can happen at any time.

Charleena Lyles was vividly failed by our city’s social services and health care access. But so are thousands of other Seattleites who are still very much alive. If Lyles snapped in part because she was stressed and overwhelmed coping, and not getting adequate help, council members need to honor her by taking a hard look at how to better fund those services and how to make them more accessible and user-friendly.

Police Oversight

Council also has an oversight function with SPD. In the Lyles case, that’s important for two related reasons.

The first is that after years of union and political obstruction, there remains no meaningful civilian oversight of SPD.

That is only one example of something that would help with a second, much broader problem, which will be on full display tonight. For all that public officials and SPD leadership has touted the reform process, SPD has done almost nothing to even acknowledge, let alone try to repair, its long legacy of abuse and the serious distrust for SPD among many local communities, especially among people of color.

The details of the Lyles case are important, but ultimately, they’re not why so many people are enraged. They’re enraged because yet another black life has been extinguished by local law enforcement, with every indication that Charleena Lyles didn’t have to die. The anger over Lyles is anger over literally decades of abuses, large and small, abuses that in many cases continue. You can’t understand the furor over the death of Charleena Lyles without that context.

City Council oversees SPD and its budget, but it also has the right to demand big-picture priorities. And council members need to demand that SPD’s reform process extend beyond hiring, training, internal policies, and all the other pieces of trying to redeem decades of cultural rot in the department. Those are all critical steps. But so long as SPD continues to treat whole communities like The Enemy – and so long as those communities expect SPD to treat them like The Enemy – the reform process means little. SPD needs to start working proactively, and hard, to earn the trust of all of Seattle’s residents. And council members can and should have something to say about that. Tonight.

The Killing of Charleena Lyles: What Should Be Done

The officers involved almost certainly won’t face any legal consequences for Charleena Lyles’ death. But the problems that led to her death are mostly recurring and institutional – and can be fixed.

UPDATE #1 6-23-17: In a classic Friday evening news dump to minimize coverage of unflattering news, SPD has released the interview transcripts from McNew and Anderson, the officers who killed Lyles. It’s bad.

They say both had batons, and Anderson also had pepper spray; and that McNew asked Anderson to use a Taser, but Anderson replied that he didn’t have one. That exchange indicates that there was time, measured in seconds, for the pair to make a decision that didn’t involve the summary execution of Charleena Lyles.

The diagrams accompanying the officers’ interview transcript are even more problematic. They indicate that McNew let Lyles get between him and the door – something that, prior to entering, the officers had specifically discussed NOT allowing Lyles to do. If that’s true, it also means that McNew – the more experienced officer, and the one with 40-hour crisis intervention training – very likely shot Lyles in the back. If she turned to face McNew at the last second, Anderson would have had to shoot her from behind.

The medical examiner’s report will, hopefully, tell us. If it doesn’t find that Lyles was shot from behind, it means either the officers’ diagram is inaccurate, or the medical examiners’ finding is inaccurate. And, again, body cameras would have recorded this critical detail.

= = =

When Charleena Lyles was shot and killed in her home last Sunday, June 18 by two Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers, in front of three of her four children, family and community alike erupted with calls for justice.

That’s not going to happen.

SPD spokespeople say the officers opened fire during an otherwise routine visit, after Lyles had called to report a burglary, because Lyles suddenly brandished a knife at them. (Subsequent reports have claimed Lyles had two knives.) The officers’ audio recordings of the incident show the time between when the tone of the visit suddenly changed from routine to alarmed, to when Lyles was shot dead, was a mere 14 seconds.

Activists should understand that for much of the general public – read general white public – Lyles is an unsympathetic figure, in many ways a stereotype of the worst characteristics assigned to African-American mothers. She was poor, living in low-income housing; a single mother, she had four children, with a fifth on the way; she had a history of convictions and documented drug use; and had struggled recently with mental illness, but reportedly wasn’t taking her prescribed medication, fearing – quite reasonably – side effects that would harm her pregnancy.

Meanwhile, superficially, the two SPD officers involved in the shooting, Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, seemed to do everything right. McNew had completed a full 40-hour training in “crisis intervention certification,” the SPD training that makes officers go-to resources in calls that involve mental health issues. Anderson also had the shorter, eight-hour version of the CIC training, which SPD now emphasizes as part of the federal Department of Justice-mandated reform process a federal court now enforces.

Lyles’ mental health problems were a matter of record for the SPD, especially due to a June 5 incident stemming from a call from Lyles – unrelated to last weekend’s burglary call – in which Lyles’ mood suddenly shifted and she threatened responding officers with a pair of scissors. That incident ended peacefully, but with Lyles charged and later attending a hearing in mental health court.

As a result, McNew, the CIC specialist, was one of the responding officers on June 18, and he and Anderson can be heard on both their audio, their car’s dashcam, and apartment complex hallway surveillance video discussing Lyles’ history before entering her apartment. Once they did so, it was a routine, professional call until, as on June 5, the tone suddenly shifted. A few seconds later, Lyles was dead.

When confronted with a knife, police officers are ordered to shoot if they fear for their lives and the would-be assailant is within 21 feet – seven steps, the time it takes for an officer to draw his or her service weapon, remove the safety, aim, and fire. There is no known video of the shooting itself, but Lyles’ subsidized housing almost certainly left less than 21 feet between her and the officers. Depending on the distance, there may also have not been time to use a less lethal alternative – beyond which, with a knife attack, some less lethal weapons won’t help because they take too long to deploy (e.g., a spooling taser) or an assailant can still lunge forward even as the weapon is deployed (e.g., chemical agents like pepper spray).

Much of the general public, including some people who are otherwise sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, aren’t alarmed at these details. As one progressive white acquaintance noted to me this week, “What were they [the officers] supposed to do?”

As it turns out, there was plenty that could have been done differently. Charleena Lyles did not have to die.

Balanced against these seemingly exonerating details is the visceral horror anyone with a soul feels for Lyles’ death: a diminutive, pregnant mother of four killed in front of three of her own children. Activist response has been the largest of any local incident in the #BLM era, including the 2016 shooting death of Che Taylor. Anecdotally, even many SPD officers were aghast at Lyles’ death.

That doesn’t mean there will be any legal consequences, though; absent a surprising medical examiner revelation (e.g., Lyles was shot from behind), the only evidence in the shooting itself is the audio recordings and the reports of McNew and Anderson. There is nothing to contradict their narrative of a sudden, mortal threat – and officers can’t be charged if they legitimately believe their lives to be in danger.

It’s virtually inconceivable that prosecutors could rebut that standard in the death of Charleena Lyles – let alone that a jury would then convict the officers of any charges. And because of the complexities of Lyles’ case, it also seems unlikely that Lyles’ death will spark any broad public outcry beyond the existing #BLM movement.

But that doesn’t mean Lyles should have died. And it doesn’t mean changes should not be demanded.

What They Could Have Done

Much of the activist wrath this past week has been generated by the simple, visceral reality of another black life taken by a department with a long, sordid history of racially based abuse. But the details in Lyles’ case are far from exonerating, for either McNew and Anderson or for SPD. Why did SPD’s visit to Lyles’ home on June 5 end peacefully, but the one on June 18 – when they were supposedly better prepared to deal with Lyles’ mental health struggles – didn’t? Why, of the countless interactions each day between SPD officers and mentally ill individuals, did this one end so badly?

Much activist criticism has focused on ways to disarm Lyles or de-escalate the situation without gunfire. SPD says the officers were carrying a less-lethal weapon, as required. They’ve said the officers didn’t have tasers, and no batons are visible on the officers in the outside videos. That most likely leaves pepper spray, possibly the least effective weapon for deflecting a potential knife attack in close quarters (or with children present). But it would still have been better than killing her. Why didn’t they use it?

And why was that the only apparent alternative on hand? Lyles’ history, and the risks she presented, were known and discussed in advance of the visit. SPD took the time, on a non-urgent call (the burglary was not in progress), to find an officer with 40-hour CIC training. They could also have taken the time to ensure the officers had adequate choices for defending themselves from a repeat of the June 5 incident. (Of course, we don’t know whether the officers did bring such alternatives, but simply left them in the trunk.) Why didn’t the officers have batons, a far better weapon to deflect a knife attack? For that matter, with kids present, the risks of simply physically disarming the diminutive Lyles were serious but relatively minor weighed against the alternatives – and could have been reduced further with Kevlar or other protective clothing. Officers could also have brought, or improvised, any sort of portable barrier. Lastly, and most obviously, depending on whether they thought Lyles’ children were in danger, they could have chosen to simply leave, barricading the apartment door and calling for backup. If they thought the kids were in danger, protecting the kids – not protecting themselves by leaving the children traumatized and motherless – should have been their top priority.

All of these options depend on where in the apartment the officers, the door, Lyles, and her children were. But since there’s no audio evidence of the children moving during the incident, three of those four elements were under the officers’ control at all times.

And needless to say, if this is how SPD trains its crisis intervention specialists, a hard look needs to be taken at that training. But that’s hardly the only institutional problem that has clouded Lyles’ death.

There’s no visual record of her killing because, seven years after body cameras for SPD officers were first approved, and with funding in place to equip every officer, McNew and Anderson weren’t wearing them. Many SPD officers don’t, because their union, the notoriously reactionary Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), has opposed them – as they’ve opposed virtually every reform under the DoJ consent decree. Similarly, officers are required to carry a less-lethal weapon, but they have the right, encoded in their union contract, to be able to refuse to carry any particular one. If, say, McNew didn’t have pepper spray with him because he doesn’t like using it, that’s his right, negotiated by his union and agreed to by the city.

Similarly, just because training in mental health intervention (the eight-hour training) is required doesn’t mean officers have to take it seriously. The long-running problems uncovered by the Department of Justice’s investigation – echoing decades of community complaints – paint a picture of a department whose cultural rot extended from top to bottom. Under the reign of SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, brought in in 2014 to help implement reforms, there have in fact been some improvements. But corrupted cultures don’t shift quickly, and SPOG in particular has been an unapologetic champion of the department’s Old Ways – and the officers and commanders, some now sidelined by O’Toole, who flourished in them.

Currently, SPOG is working on an expired contract with the city. A new contract was resoundingly rejected by SPOG members last July, and there’s been no public signs of progress on a new agreement since then. Moreover, the SPOG leaders who negotiated that contract – which basically traded a pay increase for accepting court-ordered reforms – were ousted in favor of old hard-liners. SPD’s management union, the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), is also negotiating a new contract, and that’s been further complicated by O’Toole’s having staffed top leadership posts with her own people rather than some with more seniority. In both cases, the unions present major impediments to implementing reforms, and the city, under Mayor Ed Murray as in past regimes, has been reluctant to seriously demand them. Moreover, any draft agreement also has to be approved by the federal court overseeing the DoJ consent decree. It’s little wonder contract negotiations are at an impasse.

The unions, especially SPOG, have also been fiercely resistant to any meaningful civilian oversight. The Office for Professional Accountability (OPA), the city’s attempt at such accountability, was grudgingly accepted by SPD during a previous wave of demands to curb SPD abuses, but only because it was set up to be toothless, dominated by law enforcement interests, and limited to reviewing, without subpoena power, previous internal SPD investigations. Under the reform process, its scope and powers have expanded a bit, but it still hasn’t proven itself a significant check on SPD abuses. Another product of the reform process, the Community Police Commission, has been more representative of community concerns, but so far the CPC has mostly been ignored under Murray in police reform discussions.

Without a civilian body with the ability to independently investigate an incident like Lyles’ death, investigation falls to an SPD internal investigation – sometimes farmed out to a different agency, like the King County Sheriff’s Office or the Washington State Patrol, if there’s an institutional conflict of interest. All on-duty killings also get a hearing at a coroner’s inquest that determines the cause and circumstances of death.

Beyond the union contracts, the impediments to legal accountability for officers are formidable. On rare occasions, a self-defense claim by an officer can be rejected, as in the highest-profile on-duty law enforcement killing in recent local history, the 2010 killing of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by SPD officer Ian Birk. In that case, the mortal threat confronting Birk was Williams, oblivious, walking down the street carving a piece of wood with a small woodcarving knife. He never saw the officer who shot and killed him from behind.

Jurors at Williams’ inquest rejected Birk’s claim that he feared for his life. Instead, they found the shooting “unjustified,” the only instance in literally hundreds of cases since King County enacted its current inquest system 45 years ago in which a law enforcement killing hasn’t been found to be “justified.” But even then, Birk couldn’t be charged. State law not only offers the fear-for-one’s-life defense, but requires that prosecutors show the officer had personal malice directed toward his or her victim – a near-impossible legal standard not found in any other state. Birk was never charged; SPD fired him, but he was free to find work with another law enforcement agency.

McNew and Anderson won’t be charged, either. But there are still plenty of useful, achievable changes that activists should demand.

What We Want

Many of the issues raised by Charleena Lyles’ death aren’t specific to Lyles, and focusing on them rather than Lyles herself sidesteps the tendency of some people (and not a few local media outlets) to focus on passing judgment on Lyles’ life. Whatever her struggles, the symptoms publicly reported are consistent with the onset in many women in their late 20s of schizophrenia, an illness that can be compounded during pregnancy. Whatever her diagnosis, she had no control over her actions on June 5 or on June 18. She didn’t deserve to die over them, and McNew and Anderson didn’t need to kill her. And in similar future cases, there are a whole lot of institutional changes that could help. Broadly, they fall into two categories: law enforcement-related changes and social safety net changes.

1) Social Safety Net Reforms: SPD officers frequently need to deal with homelessness, substance abuse, and other social safety net issues precisely because the government resources directed to these issues are inadequate and, at times, poorly designed and implemented. Mental health is no exception, and over the past two decades there is a long roster of unfortunate incidents involving SPD officers and individuals with mental health issues. Cops shouldn’t have to be safety net first responders – but since they are, clearly the training McNew received, and what he did or didn’t learn from it, needs review. And funding for mental health treatment programs needs to be expanded dramatically.

That, in turn, is a subset of access to health care generally, now under ferocious assault by congressional Republicans – especially Medicaid and other programs helping lower-income Americans. When those changes come, at minimum state and city budgets need to make up the difference. That will take a lot of public pressure.

2) Law enforcement reforms:
Under the reform process, SPD has done remarkably to try to heal the community distrust cemented by decades of systemic abuses, often directed against poor and non-white Seattleites. SPD’s reform plan needs to get serious about such efforts.

Institutionally, there are three levels at which activists need to focus demands in the wake of Charleena Lyles’ death:

The federal court overseeing the DoJ consent decree:
The Department of Justice, under Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and Donald Trump, no longer much cares when cops kill black people. (Or anyone else.) But the consent decree, negotiated under the Obama DoJ and now in the hands of a federal judge and court-appointed monitor, is beyond the current DoJ’s reach. And it needs to step up. Charleena Lyles’ death is directly related to the implementation of court-ordered reforms, particularly concerning use of force policies and CIC training. An internal SPD investigation and review of Lyles’ death won’t cut it, not when it involves factors the court has already found deficient within SPD. The court needs to authorize its own investigation, and the public needs to demand it.

Those union contracts: Any new agreements with SPOG or SPMA need to pass muster with the court, but city officials need to press much, much harder for contract changes that allow SPD to become more accountable and less a law unto itself. Ironically, body camera video might well provide conclusive evidence to back up the McNew/Anderson narrative of Lyles’ death – and any number of other incidents in which officers’ integrity or actions are publicly challenged. Similarly, choice of weapons, better training, meaningful civilian oversight, and any number of other reforms are stalling not just because of union resistance, but because politicians like Ed Murray have been reluctant to push harder. They need public encouragement on this score. A lot of it. And, next January, a new mayor will take office, and he or she needs pressure, too, before and after the election. (Voters should remember that the current conventional favorite in the mayoral race, Jenny Durkan, was the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington who declined to bring federal civil rights charges in the 2010 killing of John T. Williams.)

Olympia: Finally, the state law that effectively prevents prosecution of cops who kill without proper justification needs desperately to be changed. That won’t happen this legislative year, but 2018 is another matter. Lawmakers also need to be pushed hard next year on health care and mental health funding.

Meanwhile, the state legislature isn’t the only option for law enforcement prosecution reform. I-873, an initiative that would change our state’s uniquely “regressive and dangerous” use of force standards, is currently collecting signatures. You can find out more about it at the home page of Washington for Good Policing.

Ultimately, the challenge of Charleena Lyles’ death isn’t that it was a rare type of incident – it’s that it’s not rare enough. The sooner that we can address mental health care access and pressure the federal court (consent decree), the city (union contracts), and the state (use of force laws), the less likely that future Charleena Lyles are to be killed by the people charged with protecting them.

[Author’s note: Ironically, I had hoped to post this article earlier this week, but was delayed by both additional details being made public and by personal health and money crises. If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

Seattle’s War on the Homeless

Capping a catastrophic year for homelessness policy, the city is now quietly preparing to dismantle its shelter network, in favor of “permanent” housing that simply doesn’t exist

Two weeks ago, the Puget Sound region’s homelessness pandemic was back in the news, with the release of the long-delayed Winter 2017 point-in-time census of King County’s homeless. The numbers and local media coverage of them were both bad. But for the homeless, what’s going on behind the scenes is even worse.

Far from leaving the mess for a new executive to tackle in six months, lame duck Seattle mayor Ed Murray and his appointees are proceeding as fast as they can with the mayor’s ill-considered “Pathways Home” approach. In doing so, the city is poised to irreparably harm far more people than it will help. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what Murray is spearheading – with generous assistance from local media and significant parts of the Nonprofit Homelessness-Industrial Complex – is nothing more than a particularly vicious escalation of previous attempts to “solve” homelessness by attacking the homeless themselves. If we make their lives miserable enough, the thinking is apparently going, perhaps they’ll just go away. It’s worked great so far, right?

The Homelessness Emergency

Eighteen months ago, in late 2015, Both Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine formally declared states of emergency for the region’s homelessness crisis. This move was one of several that generated significant new funding, at least $55 million, to tackle the problem. A few weeks later, in January 2016, the county’s annual One Night Count posted alarming numbers that justified the declarations. The 2016 count found over 4,500 people living outdoors in King County, and over 10,000 people homeless overall. Those numbers, gathered in the dead of winter, were a staggering 19 percent increase over the previous record Winter 2015 numbers.

For context, in all of Seattle there are about 3800 shelter beds on any given winter night; less in non-winter months.

In the 16 months since that 2016 count, a lot has happened. Murray protected his program of aggressively sweeping homeless encampments – including, most visibly, the Summer 2016 destruction of the long-running unsanctioned encampment known as The Jungle – from city council legislation that would have protected homeless individuals from the chronic capriciousness of city sweeps. Murray then announced – with the support of $80,000 consultant Barbara Poppe – “Pathways Home,” an approach meant to emphasize finding permanent housing for the unhoused. Murray has also launched, last summer, a program to safely park RVs and other vehicles being used for shelter by homeless people; announced, in October 2016, the opening by December of a 75-bed, full-service shelter modeled on San Francisco’s Navigation Center; and announced funding for four new city-sanctioned encampments. Meanwhile, city voters last summer approved a $290 million housing levy with unprecedented funds for affordable housing, and earlier this year the city council added another $29 million for the same purpose.

And as anyone with eyes can attest, homelessness has gotten even worse in this time. What’s going wrong?

In a word: Everything.

Murray’s sweeps remain. A year after his promise to issue revised, more stringent criteria for enacting them, and several months after successfully killing more stringent city council legislation, in January Murray’s office finally released revised protocols for when and how the city would eradicate unauthorized encampments. (The council legislation had been written by the ACLU and other nonprofit groups who even a year ago had given up on the mayor’s assurances.) The revisions offered modest improvements but failed to address a number of chronic complaints – and also abolished the monitoring program that had revealed the city as frequently not following even its own lax guidelines. If anything, the number and ferocity of the sweeps have only increased in the months since.

But while the sweeps are rightly getting a lot of attention, there have been plenty of other problems, too. A pilot program to open three parking lots for the one-third of all homeless that use their vehicles for shelter opened one lot in Ballard last year for 15 RVs before collapsing after two months, leaving vehicle-dwelling homeless residents again with no stable or safe place to park. The city gave up on its pilot program not only because of neighborhood objections, but because it was somehow spending a bewildering $35,000 a month, or about $1750 per vehicle per month, on the program, before concluding that it wasn’t cost-effective.

In March this year, Murray announced he would put a $275 million property tax measure on this summer’s ballot to address the homelessness crisis – and then scrapped that proposal three weeks later, in favor of a more regressive county-wide sales tax measure in November whose details, let alone prospects, remain uncertain.

Six months past its scheduled December 2016 opening, and having already spent over $2 million on the project, Murray’s “Navigation Center-style” shelter has yet to open – but the city did find a location for it, in January, in a building already used by an existing 75-bed shelter, which it promptly evicted so it could remodel the space. In other words, instead of adding new shelter capacity, the city lost 75 beds in the middle of winter. Similarly, of the three (not four, as had been budgeted) “new” sanctioned encampments Murray actually announced, two already existed – one, intended for relocated Jungle residents, and another, an existing unsanctioned encampment called Camp Second Chance. In other words, after 18 months of emergency, and lots and lots of money, the city really hasn’t helped get all that many people off the streets.

Of course, the point of Pathways Home and its “Rapid Rehousing” focus is to house people, not to shelter them. In the two months between February and April of this year, the most recent for which there is public data, Rapid Rehousing found homes for about 40 people, out of over 6,000 on city waiting lists. Extrapolating from the rate at which local homelessness has been increasing, this means that while Pathways Home proudly touts the number of people it has housed, each month the city is actually losing ground; for every 20 people newly housed, nearly 100 are becoming homeless. And these numbers also don’t reflect the city’s plans to de-fund its existing network of transitional housing.

Even beyond that looming crisis, the housing effort may well get worse still. Rapid Rehousing plans for its “permanent housing” to come in the form of three- to nine-month private market rental vouchers. After the vouchers run out, those same formerly homeless people are expected to pay their own rent, in an open market where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is now over $1,700 a month in Seattle overall, and well over $2,000 a month in most of the neighborhoods where social services for low-income residents are located.

In the first four months of 2017, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s office, 48 homeless people died in King County. This means that while the city houses 20 people a month, and scores more each month become homeless, an average of a dozen each month are dying.

Which brings us to the past two weeks.

Count Us Out

After 30 years of an annual One Night Count, organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the county’s annual “point-in-time” count was moved this year to the nonprofit All Home, which contracted with a California company to oversee a supposedly more comprehensive census that could be used to inform Murray’s supposedly data-driven policies. Rather than being announced the following day as in past years, this year the rebranded “Count Us In” finally released its numbers four months later, on Wednesday, May 31.

The totals? Over 11,600 homeless in King County, including 5,485 living outdoors without shelter. About 70 percent of those unsheltered folks were sleeping in the city of Seattle. Some 92 percent of those surveyed said they would accept housing if it were offered.

These are numbers our local politicians invariably want before deciding on policies. How many of those 48 deaths from January to April could have been prevented with more timely publication?

On January 27, the low temperature in Seattle was 37. On May 31, a cloudy day, Seattle’s high was “only” 71, and the urgency of getting people off the streets nicely muted. Official reaction to the Count Us In totals, which were a staggering 22 percent higher than the same figures in 2016, was surprisingly blase. Elected officials almost uniformly echoed the official Count Us In conclusions: Our survey was more comprehensive this year, so we can’t really compare from year to year. Apples and oranges. And Count Us In made sure of that, by failing (in its 112 page report) to include neighborhood-by-neighborhood figures that could be directly compared to 2016, instead opting to create its own new county “regions.” Whatever its motivations, the effective result was a one-year free pass for civic leaders worried about accountability.

But we can make apples to apples comparisons, at least roughly, because it’s a statistical fact that increases in rental costs correlate predictably with increases in homelessness. Any increase of $100 in median one-bedroom rents in Seattle, historically, has been reflected in about a 10 percent increase in homelessness. The 19 percent jump in the 2015-2016 One Night Count totals actually exceeded this – and the same rent factor alone predicts most of the 2016-2017 jump in the new All Home numbers.

Since, by its own figures, the number of people being newly housed through the city this past year has been miniscule, there are only a few possibilities: either the 2016 numbers were high; the 2016-17 changes, for unknown reasons, don’t track as well with historical rental price precedent; or, most likely, there really was an over 20 percent jump in homelessness this past year, and Count Us In really wasn’t much more comprehensive this year than the One Night Count was in 2016. It just cost more money, took a lot more time to report back, and gave great cover to politicians who want to look like they’re doing something while actually doing something else.

Behind the Scenes

The morning after Count Us In released its numbers, the city was back to business as usual, evicting RV owners from an unsanctioned encampment at a state-owned lot in West Seattle that they had arrived at only the previous week. They’d landed there only after police chased them off a previous, informal but supposedly city-approved “safe” lot in SoDo in late May.

Meanwhile, Catherine Lester, head of the city’s Human Services Department, has been meeting with the various churches in the city that are the primary locations for overnight emergency shelters. Lester has reportedly been informing church leaders that their shelter contracts will not be renewed unless they can provide 24-hour services – a simply impossible demand for churches whose buildings are usually in heavy use during the day. Such a demand, if enforced in time for the 2018 budget that city council will pass this November (before a new mayor takes office), would effectively destroy the city’s already grossly inadequate emergency indoor shelter network.

But that’s OK, because according to Pathways Home, we’re going to house them all. With temporary private rental market vouchers.

And yes, that’s even more ridiculous than it sounds.

The Enormous Tusked Animal in the Room

You would never know it from the official reactions to the Count Us In numbers – or from the media accounts of them – but it is utterly impossible to solve our region’s homelessness crisis without first meaningfully addressing its even larger affordable housing crisis.

How bad is the affordable housing crisis? Some simple math will illustrate the scale of the catastrophe.

About 150,000 households in Seattle rent their homes. More of these are below Seattle’s median household income (which now tops $80,000 a year) than above it. Except for a few lucky retirees, these households include almost all of the people with incomes below the federal poverty level (FPL), currently $16,240 a year for a two-person household, or even 200 percent of FPL, or $32,480 a year.

If we use the standard metric that households should pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent, this means that the nearly 100,000 Seattle households at or below 200 percent of FPL should be paying no more than $800 a month in rent. The over 47,000 households at or below federal poverty level should be paying no more than about $400 a month.

An $800 per month rent per household in Seattle’s private rental market is virtually extinct; $400 a month is laughable. That leaves subsidized housing, which is offered in 133 commercial rental properties in Seattle, totaling less than 10,000 units – many of which are affordable at 200 percent of FPL, but not at FPL. Most of those properties have waiting lists that are either closed or exceed two years. Similarly, the waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers is closed, too, with occasional lotteries held just to get on the waiting list.

Additional projects, like some of the building authorized by last year’s housing levy, won’t be open for years – and even then, won’t be nearly adequate for today’s demand, let alone the demand years from now.

In other words, for every household now living in subsidized housing in Seattle, at least five more households need it. Meanwhile, those households are left to the private market – where they must compete with tens of thousands of the city’s other, less impoverished renters for what passes for semi-affordable units.

Little wonder there are over 6,000 people on the city’s Rapid Rehousing waiting lists. With only a couple hundred of them a year being rehoused by the city, the program isn’t even close to keeping up with the net figure of 900 newly homeless that Count Us In identified in its 2017 figures.

And between now and when all that newly funded affordable housing comes on line – a development which will at present only make a dent in the crisis – there’s every reason to think that more low-income households will continue to flee Seattle, and that homelessness will become more widespread, not less, unless and until the city or region puts some sort of cap on housing costs.

So why is the city playing whack-a-mole with human lives, pushing the homeless from one site to another, planning to dismantle the emergency shelter network that keeps people alive and (relatively) safe, and promising to instead house them in housing that isn’t available or doesn’t exist, and has no prospect of existing in the foreseeable future?

It’s a war. And like all undeclared, class-based wars these days, it’s the most vulnerable among us who are losing the most.

[Author’s note: Ironically, I had hoped to post this article last week but was delayed by personal health and money crises. If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing that and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]