A photo of a chainlink fence and a sign reading
Currently closed to the public citing safety concerns, City Hall park has been a vexing problem to both City and County governments for decades. (Photo by Natalie Bicknell Argerious)

The budget that Mayor Bruce Harrell signed on Thursday slimmed down two proposals that received a feted rollout at the beginning of the budget process in the face of a less-than-rosy economic picture: a larger city response to homeless encampments and the revitalization of long-shuttered City Hall Park.

The City Council pared back Harrell’s proposal for a beefed up team meant to increase the city’s direct outreach to people experiencing homelessness and address encampments. Under Harrell’s original proposal, the Unified Care Team (UCT) would have grown by five “full-time equivalent” positions and split its work into five regions of the city.

The goal was to address concerns about encampments, such as trash accumulation, while the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) worked on systemic bottlenecks to get people inside.

However, councilmembers expressed concern that the new UCT was crossing over too much with the authority’s work and instead offered an amendment: cut the funding for the UCT and give it to the authority with a proviso on how it could be used. For their part, advocates for homeless people argued that the UCT funding was intended to ramp up sweeps removing encampments and prioritized police and cleaning ahead of services for encampment residents.

Impact of cut to Unified Care Team

Exactly what that looks like will have to be the subject of negotiation, and none of the budgeted $1.2 million can be spent until the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) and KCRHA agree on the specifics of which agency will be responsible for what. If no agreement is made as of March 1, 2023, the money stays with the city and “the Executive and the Council will discuss next steps,” according to the budget amendment.

If the agreement is struck, one major change would be that KCRHA takes on the coordination of shelter referrals, wrote KCRHA spokesperson Anne Martens in an email. Right now, the authority convenes a weekly call with contracted outreach providers and the HOPE Team, which is under the UCT umbrella. Separately, the HOPE team coordinates encampment responses as well as referrals to shelter.

The HOPE team is the only group that does shelter offers on the days of encampment removals, or sweeps, because other outreach providers said that their presence at a sweep harmed relationships built with homeless clients.

The authority is interested in taking on roles in shelter referral and geographically based outreach, Martens wrote.

The Mayor’s Office “worked collaboratively” with councilmembers on the amendment, said Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for the mayor, in an email. Even with this level of staffing, the UCT will still move to a district-based model to “clean up trash and litter, address encampments and areas around encampments, and provide enhanced support to unhoused and housed residents,” Housen wrote.

City Hall Park plans scaled back

The City Council also trimmed the budget for the revitalization of City Hall Park, a large park adjacent to the King County Courthouse that has been closed to the public since the city swept a large encampment that had developed there during the pandemic.

Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine made a big deal out of reversing a previous decision by former Mayor Jenny Durkan to transfer the property to King County in return for 13 noncontiguous parcels. In the press release, Constantine and Harrell referenced $2.8 million earmarked in the budget specifically for the redo of the park. The Council sliced that amount to approximately $1.3 million over two years by, in part, swapping out funding from certain real estate taxes with another, more flexible source.

The reduction will not impact the transfer, Housen confirmed, although it will change what can be done at the property.

That was a disappointment for King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who has been a proponent of the transfer to county ownership. The King County Council had been quick to accept the original agreement in December 2021, which then languished in committees at the Seattle City Council.

Before the Nov. 22 vote on the initial balancing package, Kohl-Welles said that without the full funding, she would prefer the City Council approve the original agreement and allow King County to take control of the park.

This article was produced in partnership with Real Change News, where Archibald is the editor.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the mayor signed the budget on Tuesday. In fact, it was Thursday.

Article Author
Ashley Archibald

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News, a nonprofit journalism outlet covering economic and social justice issues in Seattle and beyond. She can be reached at editor [at] realchangenews.org and on Twitter at @AshleyA_RC.