Astonishing dishonesty as Seattle installs secretive encampment

May 29, 2018, 5:51 AM | Updated: 11:53 am
low barrier homeless encampment...
(File, MyNorthwest)
(File, MyNorthwest)

Despite claiming a new low-barrier encampment isn’t a certainty, the only flyers that appear to have been distributed indicate the encampment “will open.”

Only one flyer was posted in the neighborhood surrounding the encampment promoting a community meeting to discuss the plans. The business directly across the street from the encampment says it was never contacted by the city. And officials have contradicted themselves on multiple occasions — that is when they’re not blowing off media requests.

This is not a story of whether or not you support the encampment location or even whether or not they’re effective at getting drug addicts and alcoholics off the street and into treatment. This is a story of how far the city will seemingly go to hide their plans from the public and the media. The dishonesty seems so obvious, to call it simple incompetence strains credulity. I believe the intent of these city officials was nefarious, hoping to mislead the public and the media as they planned the controversial encampment. And here’s my case.

Refusing to confirm and promote a community meeting

On May 14, I was shown a flyer from a local business upset that a Tiny Home Village was announced for Aloha and Eighth in South Lake Union. It explained the encampment “will happen” and there would be a community meeting on May 31 to discuss it. Karen Ko, with the Department of Neighborhoods, was listed as the contact on a message sent to me by a local organization.

I contacted Ko to confirm the meeting on May 31 and asked how the city planned to promote the meeting. After two emails and two phone calls, Ko finally responded, a day later, telling me: “I forwarded your message to staff who can respond to your question.” When asked who the staff members were and how might I reach them directly, Ko ignored my email.

On May 16, Meg Olberding from the Human Services Department emailed me a statement she had previously sent to Linzi Sheldon at KIRO 7, who has been pursuing this story and helped break some important details. The statement didn’t answer a single question I asked. Instead, she said there’s “nothing definitive at this point” about an SLU encampment.

I responded by asking them, again, to confirm the May 31 meeting. I was ignored. I sent another email and they finally confirmed the meeting only after my audience started pummeling them with emails and phone calls, at my request.

Why was the city dragging their feet? It took, between Sheldon and I, dozens of calls and emails to confirm a community meeting was happening. And why did they say there’s “nothing definitive” when the flyer says otherwise?

The really bad, no good backtrack

When Olberding finally confirmed the meeting, she went one step further in discussing the plans for the encampment. She wrote, “again there is no definitive plans until the city has done community outreach, review of the site, and the Mayor presents a budget plan to city council – none of which has happened yet.”

That’s where a new official joined the conversation: Lois Maag (strategic adviser, communications) from the Department of Neighborhoods.

Maag sent me (presumably) Version 2 of the encampment flyer, which had been dramatically changed. No longer was the encampment listed as a certainty; now they’re looking at the possibility of hosting it at Aloha and Eighth. No longer would the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) manage the site; they “may” manage it. Nowhere does the flyer mention the low-barrier nature of the encampment.

The permit

When I asked why the original flyer said it “will open” I was told by Maag on May 17 via email that they “got ahead of ourselves.” That seems to indicate they intended to move forward, regardless of community input.

And it appears that was the case. Days before Maag’s email, LIHI confirmed the details of the encampment that they would be managing to KIRO 7.

Further, the city has already moved forward with a permit. When asked about the premature permit, Meg Olberding with the city told KIRO 7 in an email:

“…there are many logistics that need to be in place should a village site move forward. Securing a site to maintain safety with fencing and posting a notice for permitting are just two of those steps; some others are referred to in the site plan you attached. The community meeting is also part of the process.”

It remains unclear if they will benefit from a fast-tracked process, though KOMO TV confirmed, as well, that the encampment is a certainty.

Some businesses ignored and a new flyer emerged

In talking with businesses and neighborhoods in the area immediately surrounding the future encampment, one thing became clear: the city’s canvassing efforts have been inconsistent. The skate shop closest to the site confirmed to me on Saturday that they were never contacted by the city. But a block away, another local business was given a flyer right before the Memorial Day weekend. Not Version 2 that said the city was considering the spot for an encampment. They received Version 1 that said it was a certainty.

But there’s also a third version. When the city claimed they’d be engaged in outreach to promote the meeting, apparently they meant they’d put up just one flyer. I’ve canvassed the blocks immediately surrounding the encampment. There are none on the block of the encampment, even though it is a few yards away from a hotel and massive apartment complex.

One block west, I found a single flyer taped to a lamppost. And this one was a new one. Not only does it confirm the encampment “will open” but now it has additional information: “Drugs and Alcohol will be allowed…” Perhaps I missed some? I’ve walked the area twice and only saw the one.

The flyer was likely created after Version 2, which, remember, when Maag sent it out, explained the encampment wasn’t a certainty. I’ve asked Maag when this new flyer was created and will update you when they offer an answer. And as was the case on all previous flyers, the link they send you to doesn’t give you any details on this encampment.

Incompetence or lies?

All of the conflicting messages from the city and its poor promotion of the May 31 meeting, it begs the question: are they simply incompetent or are they lying? I think they’re lying. They don’t even have the meeting listed on their Outreach and Engagement section on their main page. It’s not even listed on the City’s event calendar.

I think they know this encampment will be controversial and it’s in their best interest to keep it as quiet as possible so they run into little opposition. They’d rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. And while that might be the best strategy (assuming they could actually do it without being caught), it is in opposition to what our city departments are supposed to do. Will Mayor Durkan get involved or will she stay silent, giving her departments a pass as they lie to neighbors and the media?

Jason Rantz on AM 770 KTTH
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Astonishing dishonesty as Seattle installs secretive encampment