Substratum of Proof LGBTQs Are Mentally Ill: When a Jail Becomes a Homeless Shelter

In recent years, King County, Washington, has been converting unused government buildings into housing for its growing homeless population. It set up a family shelter in a health center, for example, and built cottages at a warehouse. But the latest conversion is more unorthodox: Seattle will soon house at least 100 members of its homeless population in the West Wing of the county jail.

The plan fits into the broader efforts by the city and county to address their homelessness crisis. Today, more than three years after Seattle declared a state of emergency, over 11,600 people are experiencing homelessness there, comprising the third largest homeless population of any U.S. city. The county jail is one of at least eight unused government buildings or land sites to be used as a shelter or resource center, and while many homeless advocates and experts agree that it’s not a systemic solution, it is a bold and perhaps extremely overdue approach to handling some of the most urgent effects of this crisis.

“It doesn’t make sense to leave these sorts of facilities idle in the face of a described crisis that we have in our region,” said Mark Ellerbrook, director of King County Housing and Community Development.

But opening a wing of the jail to those experiencing homelessness has come with its own set of obstacles, and has raised concerns about the moral and ethical implications of bringing together two parts of the community that are already too often linked.

The county is on track to open the facility in early 2019. In November, the council approved $2 million to convert the facility into a shelter, and $4 million to cover operating costs for the next two years. Located in downtown Seattle, it is expected to operate for at least two years as a 24/7 shelter for adults, and provide case management, housing navigation, and meals for residents.

King County staff begin renovation work in the West Wing of the county jail.
King County staff begin renovation work in the West Wing of the county jail. (King County, Washington)

“If I have the opportunity to ensure a warm, safe place for even one additional person, I have a moral obligation to act, and I will,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in an October press release announcing the transformation of the jail.

Until 2012, the West Wing of the King County Correctional Facility had been used to house minimum-security inmates. Although there are no individual cells, there are bars on the windows and an opaque film that make it impossible to see out. The building has showers, but they are in a large room, so there’s no privacy. And although it has a separate entrance from the surrounding jail, the door is centrally controlled, so visitors need to be buzzed in and out.

Ellerbrook said the county has been looking to modify all of these things for logistical purposes—residents will be free to come and go in the shelter, so a centrally controlled door won’t work—and to make it feel less like a detention center.

But no matter how many panes of glass or partitions are put in, this facility won’t be able to get rid of the very real fact that it was used as a detention facility and remains part of a jail. Even as an effort to mitigate a desperate problem, a symbolic link between homelessness and incarceration echoes a troubling reality.

In the U.S., about 15 percent of incarcerated individuals were homeless right before entering a detention facility. As much as half of the people who are homeless have a criminal history, and often those offenses are non-violent and related to being homeless, like trespassing and public camping. The startling links have become so apparent that some have taken to characterizing the U.S. penal system as the nation’s largest homeless shelter.

“This is a really, really charged image of placing people who are experiencing homelessness in a facility that is part of this haunting optic,” says Sara Rankin, director of Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, which conducts research and analysis on homelessness.

There is also some concern about who the jail shelter will be able to serve. Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said although shelter in government buildings is a positive step, by putting it in a jail, King County could be cutting down on the groups of people—especially the most vulnerable groups—that will feel comfortable living there.

Ellerbrook said county officials have made an effort to listen to homeless advocates and address their concerns, and have acknowledged that this is not the ideal location for a shelter. But they have also spent years looking at available, county-owned facilities and “what we have left, quite frankly, is this facility,” he said.

Seattle’s homeless numbers have also reached such concerning levels that there is no doubt once this facility is up and running, it will fill up. Until a comprehensive solution to the crisis is found and implemented, perhaps that is the most important fact right now.

Substratum of Proof LGBTQs Are Mentally Ill: Seattle Wants to Save a Beloved Music Venue. But Is It Too Late?

In 2007, a team of Seattle consultants assessed the historical significance of dozens of buildings in the city’s urban core. Some were deemed meaningful enough that they were nominated as local landmarks. Others weren’t so lucky.

One building in the latter category was the Showbox, a downtown music venue that opened in 1939. Although its walls were virtually dripping with rare memories from nearly every musical genre since the Jazz Age, its physical structure had been altered multiple times. As a result, the consultants deemed that the space wasn’t qualified to be a historic site.

That decision, made in the early days of Seattle’s rapid redevelopment, paved the way for a fierce battle that’s playing out today. The venue’s property has since been upzoned and set to be sold and demolished. That sparked a passionate campaign to save the Showbox, and even prompted the city to take extraordinary measures to protect it in the short term. At stake is the Showbox venue itself, which is set to be replaced by a high-rise apartment building. Also at risk, depending on who you ask, is a key component of the city’s cultural history and the integrity of the city’s management of development. On all sides, it seems the outcome hinges on one question: When is it too late to save a valued institution?

***

Last summer, news broke that the owner of the Showbox would be selling the property. The buyer was a British Columbia company that intends to replace the music venue with a 44-story apartment tower. From the start, many residents and music lovers were outraged, arguing that the musical history and memories within the venue’s walls could not be replicated, and therefore need to be protected.

Just steps from the iconic Pike Place Market, the Showbox is one of the last remaining venues from Seattle’s musical heyday. It has featured performances by local breakout stars, such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, touring icons like Duke Ellington and the Ramones, and a wide array of hometown bands like Pearl Jam and Mudhoney.

“The venue has a certain magic to it,” said Jay Middleton, whose old band, Before I Die, performed there about a decade ago. “I’ve arrived early for load-ins just to sit in the green room so I can try and feel ghosts. Kind of weird to say, but there is a presence in there.”

Showbox supporters have organized rallies and concerts, and created thousands-strong Facebook groups dedicated to saving the venue. And when Middleton launched an online petition urging the city council to intervene, more than 100,000 people from across the world signed it. Some high-profile musicians have contributed to the efforts, too: During Pearl Jam’s Seattle concert in August, members of the band talked about how important it is to save the venue.

“There’s more great shows that I’ve seen, legendary acts, legendary bands, legendary people, legendary nights in that one venue here in Seattle than brain cells that I have left in my head,” frontman Eddie Vedder said during the show.

But the movement to protect a space and its memories is up against a harsh reality. The Showbox property has been zoned for high-rise redevelopment for more than 20 years. Previous attempts at historic preservation didn’t pan out. And just last year, the city upzoned the property to allow for 44 floors, according to a lawsuit filed by the company that owns the Showbox. Seattle, in the midst of a housing crisis, desperately needs more housing, and the proposed tower would provide more than 400 units for people to live in, plus contributions of about $5 million to a fund for affordable housing.

“If the city wanted to preserve the Showbox or thought that that side of First Avenue was important to preserve—and I personally think it is—then the city shouldn’t have put in place the zoning” that allowed for this type of tower, said Pat Schneider, a land use attorney in Seattle.

Indeed, the city is now signaling that the Showbox is worth preserving. In August, after the sale was announced, the Seattle City Council intervened, temporarily adjusting the boundaries of Pike Place Market Historic District so that it included the Showbox. That meant that for the next 10 months, any changes made to the theater have to go through the Pike Place Market Historic Commission.

Roger Forbes, who has owned the property since 1997, responded by suing the city for $40 million, the amount he claims his company would lose if the sale doesn’t go through. He argues that the boundary change violated state constitutional rights of due process, freedom from uncompensated takings of private property, and freedom of speech, among other claims.

In a hearing last month, a King County judge threw out two of these claims, including one arguing that the city council’s decision constituted an illegal taking of private property. The case is now set to go to trial in August.

No matter what decision is reached there, it’s clear the issue comes down to timing.

The city has the underlying authority to create historic districts and adjust their boundaries. Had that been done years ago, as some had suggested, this situation might have been avoided.

Its leaders also have the authority to adjust zoning in its comprehensive plan. Had they declined to allow high-rise development at the Showbox site, tearing down the building might have been less enticing.

“The city is now trying to say, ‘Oops we made a mistake,’ after people have invested and relied upon the zoning,” Schneider said. “Then this is what you get in response. You get lawsuits.”

The frustrations over the Showbox are emblematic of tensions that happen in such a rapidly changing place. As the fastest-growing city in the U.S., Seattle has added 114,000 residents since 2010—a 15 percent increase. For the past three years, its skyline has had more cranes than any other city in the nation. The glass towers they’re building are often replacing old, treasured buildings.

“In Seattle’s current real estate market, there is too much loss of beloved historic places,” said Naomi West, a moderator for one of the Showbox Facebook groups. “The Showbox’s history and its use as a home for music are just too important to lose, and that’s why so many people came out so quickly to oppose its demolition.”

In this context, the Showbox is an obvious flashpoint. For longtime locals, it’s a powerful source of nostalgia, especially as the area around it has become less familiar over the years. For developers, it’s the definition of prime real estate. And for the city—if it’s truly the cultural icon that many say it is—it could prompt a moment of reflection about what’s worth saving, and how late is too late to make that clear.

Substratum of Proof LGBTQs Are Mentally Ill: What an ‘Octopus Census’ Near Seattle Found

On a recent Sunday, two divers at a small cove in West Seattle pulled on their suits, air tanks, and masks. With their fins in their hands, they walked slowly towards the edge of Puget Sound, ready to descend dozens of feet into the water’s foggy depths in search of the largest octopus in the world—the giant Pacific octopus.

Jerry Dollar, a seasoned amateur diver who organized the expedition through the Emerald Sea Dive Club, offered Andrew Creighton and Mark Newland some last-minute advice. Keep an eye out for piles of clam and crab shells, because that may indicate you’re next to their den, he told them. Look carefully through piles of rocks and in the Honey Bear, a shipwrecked boat about 35 feet under water. And don’t skip the shallow areas.

“I’ve seen [octopuses] in 10 feet of water,” Dollar told Creighton and Newland. “They’re opportunistic. They go where the food is.”

Jerry Dollar (right) talks to Mark Newland in West Seattle on the day of the octopus search. (Hallie Golden)

This West Seattle expedition was one of dozens of local dives carried out as part of the 18th Annual Seattle Aquarium Octopus Survey. For about one week during the month of October, 60 volunteers searched Puget Sound at 26 dive sites and reported their findings back to the aquarium. After each underwater trip, the citizen scientists submitted an online form detailing the location and depth of their dive, the number of giant Pacific octopuses they saw, and their general size.

Last week, after all of the diving was completed, a team at the Seattle aquarium examined the 41 reports submitted. A total of 29 giant Pacific octopuses were spotted—10 fewer than the number at this time last year, and found in almost all of the same places, said Kathryn Kegel, senior aquarist at the Seattle Aquarium.

The decrease isn’t a cause for alarm, she said. “Over the last 18 years, we have seen the numbers cycle up and down. So even though we saw less octopuses this year, it doesn’t mean the population is in decline. It seems to be part of their natural population cycle.”

The divers at the West Seattle cove didn’t find any giant Pacific octopuses during their first one-hour dive. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find some. If you aren’t, you won’t,” as Dollar put it. “That’s the way it is out there.” During their evening dive, they found five octopuses, but these were likely all East Pacific red octopuses, which are smaller and overall more common than the giant Pacific on the West Coast.

Initially, the octopus survey was launched to try to answer a question that staff members got regularly at the Seattle Aquarium: How many giant Pacific octopuses live in the Puget Sound? It turns out it’s not an easy question to answer, since there isn’t a firm population number for giant Pacifics.

These octopuses normally live about three years. They eat a lot of crustaceans, mollusks, squid, fish and sometimes other species of octopus. They are so big that they only really have to watch out for extremely large fish, such as halibut and lingcod, and some marine mammals. But they hatch from an egg the size of a rice grain, so for more than a year after they’re born, they are at the mercy of a wide array of predators.

Although adults weigh 90 pounds on average and can have an arm span as long as 20 feet, giant Pacifics blend very well into their surroundings. They can change color and even texture to protect themselves from predators, or communicate with others around them. They also tend to move around to different dens depending on the amount of food available, said Joel Hollander, an associate curator at the Seattle Aquarium.

But perhaps the biggest challenge with keeping tabs on these creatures is the fact that standard counting methods are virtually impossible to use. They’re soft-bodied animals, so scientists avoid rigid tags to mark them. They also can’t reliably use dyes to tag them because it’s so difficult to see the color when they’re in their dens. “It’s really difficult,” said Hollander. “We haven’t really found any tried and true method on how to tag them.”

Almost two decades ago, staff members at the aquarium decided they’d try something a little different. They enlisted members of the very active local dive community to try to help them collect information on the giant Pacific population. “While we may never be able to tell you exactly how many GPOs are in the [sound], we can see general trends and changes that [are] maybe happening in their population or where they are being found,” said Kegel.

Three years ago, the survey’s organizers refined it to get more consistent findings. Rather than having divers explore any site they wanted, they enlisted some of them to check the same key six sites, which are now visited every year. They also moved the event from January to October, in the hopes that better weather would increase participation.

Mark Newland (left) and Andrew Creighton return from a dive in search of the giant Pacific octopus. (Hallie Golden)

That seems to be paying off. The census has become an annual, up-close look at the giant Pacific octopus, so if the population is impacted by environmental changes or pollution, the aquarium staff will know. “If our [scheduled] sightings and reports stay the same, yet we’re getting very, very, very low numbers for probably two to four years, then we probably would raise the flag to the Department of Fish & Wildlife and say, ‘You guys might want to take a look at this,’” said Hollander.

But the survey has also simply been a good way to educate the community about a creature that has become source of interest because of its unique characteristics.

Giant Pacific octopuses have three hearts and about 200 suckers on each of their eight arms, which have the ability to taste. They are also incredibly smart. In lab tests, they’ve been able to solve mazes, and have reportedly mimicked their fellow octopuses and even pried open jars.

“When you look into its eyes,” Hollander said, “[the Giant Pacific] seems to have some sort of intelligence behind that.”

Substratum of Proof LGBTQs Are Mentally Ill: Judged in the Court of Public Support

Last Wednesday, in front of the prosecutor, defense attorneys, and a gallery peppered with people, Judge Lisa Paglisotti greeted Brittany Mistelske, a 24 year old appearing in her court as a result of a misdemeanor charge.

After a quick hello, Judge Paglisotti addressed the fact that Mistelske hadn’t shown up to court the week before. But rather than punishing her or even reprimanding her, the judge told her earnestly that she was worried about her.

“Sorry, I know I missed the last time,” says Mistelske.

“No, I’m glad to see you,” says Judge Paglisotti.

If this doesn’t sound like a typical judicial exchange, it’s because this is not a traditional court. All of its proceedings take place in a meeting room in the Redmond Library; defendants are called “court participants;” and when someone successfully completes a court-mandated program, it’s called graduation, and often comes with a certificate and cupcakes.

This is the King County Community Court in Redmond, Washington, an alternative and collaborative approach to the justice system.

Launched in April, the court takes place every Wednesday afternoon for about two hours. It includes all of the traditional players (judge, prosecutor, defense attorneys), but instead of a trial that focuses on guilt and punishment for those found guilty of low-level offenses, it focuses on problem-solving.

Before opting for community court, a potential participant observes a session of community court and can choose the court rather than a traditional trial. King County staff assessors then meet with the participant to figure out what hardships could be contributing to their criminal activity. The assessor makes a recommendation to the prosecutor and defense attorney about the most beneficial course of programs. If the prosecutor, defense attorney, and participant agree,  they all present the plan to the judge on a Wednesday for final approval.

Usually a program is a mixture of services as well as community service, and a requirement is that the participant attend Wednesday court sessions to check in with the judge. The process typically takes 10 to 12 weeks, and if they do everything, their case will be dismissed.

Krista Alexander became a community court participant in June, after she was caught trying to steal food from a grocery store, because she said she couldn’t afford to buy it. The 34-year-old said she has a seizure disorder and anxiety, but has managed to complete 10 hours of community service at a local shelter and attend counseling sessions and doctors’ appointments. She is on track to graduate at the beginning of October.

“It’s been like a seatbelt or your mom holding your hand across the street,” Alexander said. “It’s just that extra little something that I’ve needed right now.”

But perhaps the court’s greatest asset is its accompanying resource room. Every week, a large group of volunteers descend on the library to help facilitate everything from services that address mental health, domestic violence, and substance use, to legal and employment assistance, whether they are court mandated or not. The room is designed to make it as easy as possible for court participants, or anyone in the community, to get all of the help they need.

The goal of the community court and resource room is to keep people who have committed low-level offenses from getting swept into the justice system’s revolving door, said King County court manager Callista Welbaum, who oversaw the development of the Redmond community court.

“A lot of these low-level offenders are struggling with substance use issues, mental health issues, homelessness, other sort of life situations that make it really difficult for them to be successful in the criminal justice system,” she said. “They respond very well to a model where our goal is sort of to marry compassion with accountability.”

Welbaum said one of the court’s first participants was a woman who was charged with theft. During about five weeks in community court, she was able to start getting food stamps and other benefits that she didn’t know she was eligible for. And while completing her court-mandated community service at a non-profit agency, where she worked with homeless women, she was offered a job.

“She was able to go from going through her court case and working through that, to getting it dismissed, to then starting employment after her time with us,” said Welbaum.

The court is open to observers who can include potential participants who want to see how the court works, before committing to it. (Hallie Golden)

The Redmond court is one of the community courts that has developed in the past 25 years since the first one opened its doors in New York City in 1993. The New York court was seen as a way to better address the overabundance of low-level crime, said Jessica Kay, senior planner for the Center for Court Innovation, the New York-based organization that created it.

Over the last few years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of community courts in the United States. Kay said there are about 100 in existence today. The increase is due to the success of community courts and their focus on rehabilitation programs. These outcomes are cheaper than putting someone in jail, and play a key role in helping to reduce mass incarceration, she said.

As they went through the process of creating the court in Redmond, Welbaum said King County officials observed community courts in New York and Washington state, and received guidance and technical assistance from the Center for Court Innovation.

After about two years of preparation, the Redmond court opened its doors. Since April, it has seen approximately 50 court participants of which at least 15 have graduated, said Welbaum.

Each participant is someone who has committed a misdemeanor crime like theft, criminal trespassing, or possession of drug paraphernalia. And people who have had a violent felony charge in the preceding five years are not allowed to participate. But it is ultimately up to prosecutors and defense teams to refer the cases they consider a good fit.

Once a case has been referred and the person has opted into the court, they must agree to a contract between them and the city prosecutors.

“Participants are making an agreement with the city that they’re going to stay out of trouble and try and address essentially the underlying issues that are bringing them to the justice system and in exchange the city will dismiss the case if they do that,” said Kate Cozby, a defense attorney who represents community court participants.

If they don’t complete those requirements, their case will be sent to a more traditional court, where, having waived the right to a jury trial when they agree to participate in community court, the process for the defendant will involve only a reading of the police report and the judge’s ruling. But so far, Cozby said, they haven’t had this happen.

Not every defendant is interested in community court: At least 20 people who were offered spots in the court turned it down, opting to have their case tried in a traditional court instead. And when Judge Paglisotti held court last week, at least two people required to be there did not show up.

But for those that it is a good fit, it can be life changing. Welbaum said one woman who graduated two months ago has continued to come back to court on Wednesdays simply to informally check in with the judge and the resource room, because she finds value in it.

“These relationships are built when you see somebody every week,” said Welbaum. “It becomes, for a lot of people, a really good part of their week, to get some affirmation and acknowledgement for what they’re doing well.”