As the city scrambles to address ongoing crime and violence, Mayor Bruce Harrell struggles to fulfill his promise for a new kind of public safety response as he continues to rely heavily on police while perpetuating a long legacy of undervaluing and underpaying social service workers.
On Friday, March 4, the Mayor surrounded himself with cops and prosecutors and outlined the city’s approach to public safety in high-crime areas such as Little Saigon and 3rd and Pine. Although Harrell described his hot-spot policing strategy as a “holistic” partnership between the police and social services, the Mayor made it clear that arrests come first and social services come second. That order appears to apply in terms of operational sequence, importance, and compensation.
Arrests certainly came first at 12th and Jackson. Between January 1 and March 3, the cops made 80 felony arrests: seven gun violations, 25 commercial burglaries, 23 narcotic investigations or arrests, 19 warrant arrests, three organized retail theft arrests, and one assault.
Outreach, a term Harrell did not define, will come second, eventually. After two months of arrests, Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for Harrell, told the Seattle Times that the Mayor’s office had not yet ordered any outreach organizations to connect people at 12th and Jackson to services or housing. Harrell claimed that an arrest “unfortunately” presented “one of the best” ways to access treatment.
Moreover, during Friday’s press conference, the Mayor didn’t announce a plan to deploy outreach services, and he declined to name an organization the city might tap to do that work. In an email to The Stranger, Housen said, “Everything is on the table in terms of programs.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis said this sort of head-scratching over service providers was “incredibly frustrating” because the city already contracts with JustCARE, a program he believes is suited to take on this responsibility.
Lisa Daugaard, a director of JustCARE, said the team was plenty capable of navigating the complex situations downtown and in Little Saigon. In the fall of 2020, for instance, the program started addressing a stolen property resale operation at 8th and King. After three weeks of work, Daugaard said the situation was “completely resolved.”
However, she acknowledged safety concerns regarding this approach. Even when JustCARE visits encampments, the team encounters both people living outside and people engaged in crime. She said JustCARE handles that issue regularly, and the team deals with it by maintaining boundaries. While workers will not offer social services to a “small handful” of people who pose a threat, Daugaard said the organization “can effectively engage more than 90% of folks.”
In contrast to JustCARE, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) did not seem interested in outreach workers being a part of the city's holistic response to crime.
“Outreach workers don’t (and shouldn’t) be responding to crime, that’s not their job,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a text.
The spokesperson later clarified that the KCHRA does not want outreaches workers to be seen as cops because it could interfere with their goal to build relationships. When I asked whether or not KCHRA outreach workers would be suited to be the social service half of the response, the spokesperson said, "We don't have all the details on what the City's plan looks like."
Paying outreach workers like first responders
Lewis said he wanted the city to look at JustCARE as “an integral part of our public safety infrastructure, the same way policing and jails are,” but that view faces a major test soon. Two of the program's multimillion-dollar city contracts will end in June, which leaves it in a precarious situation. Last week the program’s directors asked the council to appropriate $10 million to keep outreach workers on the ground.
Even if the council decides to keep JustCARE, and even if Lewis gets his way and sends the organization’s outreach workers to work as equals to the cops, pre-existing wage disparities in the industry and an upcoming budget crunch prevents the city from committing to paying social service providers like “an integral part” of Harrell’s “holistic” plan.
When compared to the Seattle Police Department’s $365 million budget, Lewis said JustCARE was “a huge deal at the price it's being presented.” But it’s the outreach program’s smaller size and much smaller paychecks that make it such a bargain for the city.
According to a recent job listing, JustCARE pays $57,000 a year for a Street Outreach System Coordinator, which requires four years of prior experience from applicants. The police department pays an entry-level cop over $83,000. After four years, cops get over $100,000. Lower pay and burnout also creates high turnover in the outreach industry, which drains programs of institutional knowledge.
“It is very important to affirmatively require first responder level wages in this model and build the cost structure accordingly,” Daugaard said in an email.
In light of the current pay disparity between cops and social workers, Lewis said he supports higher wages for outreach workers, which could attract and retain employees in these important jobs.
Recently, better paying social service gigs hit the job market. As part of the KCHRA’s billionaire-backed “Partnership for Zero,” the agency will hire 30 outreach workers and pay them $75,000. What a KCRHA spokesperson called a “living wage” will make these outreach workers among the best-paid in the region. That said, again, the spokesperson signaled disinterest in joining other first responders to tackle crime.
In the meantime, the council is only proposing one-offs and studies.
As the council considers hiring incentives for SPD, Councilmember Lisa Herbold ordered a report on which other departments may be in need of these bonuses so as to not prioritize one department over others.
In this spirit, the council tossed the social service industry a couple extra bucks at the end of last year when it voted to pass a 3% inflation adjustment on human services contracts and added $5.3 million in one-time appreciation pay.
The council also funded the Human Services Department to conduct a $600,000 pay equity analysis study of social service jobs to find a benchmark for fairly compensating these workers based on level of responsibility, required training, and working conditions. According to a spokesperson from HSD, the department is still planning the study as of last check, but it doesn't look like the findings will put cops and social service workers as equals as the crime strategy positions them.
"Even in co-responder models, the roles of police and social workers are distinct and require different skills, training, education, etc., and so I would doubt the study as specified would seek to equate the two – particularly if the intent is to help to maintain a stable workforce and stronger services for our communities in the area of social work," the spokesperson said in an email.
Acknowledging that there is plenty more to do for outreach workers, Lewis said he is in conversations with the Harrell administration about getting better pay.
“Mayor Harrell recognizes these are challenging jobs that require fair wages to ensure this field is sustainable for workers in the long term,” Housen said in an email. “That said, budget discussions are in very early stages, so we're not in a place to comment or make any specific commitments at this time.”
So far, the early discussion stages look bleak. The council reported last week that the city’s spending has outpaced the general revenue funds. Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda said she expects a “budget crunch” in the supplemental budget.
“There's been a long disparity in wages and benefits for city employees and workers who fill the tremendous need in city contracts, especially within human services," Mosqueda said in an email.
She added, "Until we have a clearer picture of the City's budget, any speculating on changes to the City's 2022 budget would be premature."