Addressing incidents involving people with mental illness

Question:

“I've been following your candidacy for a while now. You do stand out from the rest of the District 6 candidates. I had an experience today which I wanted to both relay to you and get your opinion on as a candidate for City Council. I was walking down 1st Avenue this morning with my wife and mother-in-law who is visiting from out of town. Shortly after dropping my kids off at daycare, around 1st and Stewart we passed a man who got extremely offended by us. I have no idea what particular offense he took, but he very aggressively demanded an apology from all of us and started shouting about how this was America. I work downtown, so this kind of occurrence isn't all that uncommon, so we just tried to move down the sidewalk as quickly as possible, but he took even greater offense to this and started chasing us and eventually cornered us in a coffee shop.

Luckily we were able to get some assistance from the other occupants and a security guard, but the man continued being aggressive. At this point I dialed 911. I think the guy caught on that the cops would be showing up soon and took off. The operator asked if I wanted to file a report with the officers, which I declined. I mostly wanted the police to check up on the guy because he clearly had a mental illness and was probably going to threaten and potentially harm someone else. I have experienced and seen this type of behavior quite frequently. I work near Westlake and a man just stabbed a couple individuals several weeks ago. Almost every day I see a person screaming or running through traffic or acting aggressive and unstable. These are clearly people in need of help, but they are also people that are potentially dangerous to themselves and others.

Do you feel that the police/city/legal system are able to do anything about this kind of incident? What would you do on the city council to help with this situation?”

Answer:

This issue is multifaceted, much like homelessness. It's upsetting to me that this happens more frequently in Seattle than any of us would like. Also, it seems that the opportunity for a potentially beneficial intervention got lost. You wanted to see if the man could get checked out or evaluated, but the 911 operator asked if you wanted to file a police report.

If police officers had been able to show up while the man was still present, then they would have had several courses of action available:

-Offer mental health referral information to the individual and/or family members

-Assist in accommodating a voluntary admission for the individual

-Take the person into custody and provide transportation to a mental health facility for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation

-Make an arrest

As with all situations involving a person in crisis, officers should use de-escalation techniques and communication skills to avoid escalating the situation.

Even though our law enforcement and legal system may not have been designed to serve people with mental illness, public safety is a paramount duty of our city. One City program that that is meant to try to address incidents such as this is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. LEAD is a pre-arrest diversion program that provides wrap-around services to people with less severe mental health issues. 

However, I am not certain that police response to incidents such as yours is as timely and appropriate as we would like it to be.

I believe we need teams of mental health and behavioral outreach workers and police community service officers on the streets of downtown Seattle and in neighborhoods. These outreach workers and officers would develop relationships with local businesses and people who are homeless and/or have substance abuse or mental issues. They would know when and how to provide intervention services to help people get the services they need. They would be on call and available to respond rapidly to incidents such as the one that you and your family experience. They might be better able to determine which of the above-mentioned courses of action would be most appropriate for the person in crisis.

As a City Council member, I would commit to obtaining funding for more community crisis mental health personnel to be part of teams with police community service officers and downtown Metropolitan Improvement District ambassadors. It is important that these teams complement and coordinate with the Downtown Emergency Service Center's Crisis Response Center and Crisis Respite Program. Earlier this year the Washington State Legislature allocated more funding for training of mental health workers at state colleges and universities. The City should recruit graduates from these training programs. Or the City could provide funding to organizations such as the Downtown Seattle Association to hire such mental health outreach workers.

Also, I have a friend who works as an emergency room physician at Harborview Medical Center. I think he frequently deals with the in-take of people in crisis situations similar to the man in your incident. I would like to talk with him and learn about other ways in which the City can better respond to and prevent such incidents.

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Response to a recent comment on my homelessness post

I want to thank someone who helped to educate me about homelessness. It is a truly complex issue with no easy solutions.

In my recent post I had said:

“It is important that all people feel safe in parks and along sidewalks. That includes people who are homeless. But parks and sidewalks are not places for camping overnight. The teams can let campers in such places know that if there is no shelter or housing available, then they need to move to places away from parks or sidewalks.”

Someone wrote me to say she was disturbed by the idea that unhoused people should hide in less public places. She is absolutely right. For example, staying underneath highways is not safe for unhoused people. We need to provide effective housing options and social services, and not require that those most at risk hide for our comfort.

I am appreciative of this person for pointing out the error in my thought. 

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My response to questions about the homelessness issue in Seattle

Several people have asked me to share my thoughts about the homelessness
issue in our city.
I personally have several reactions when I see homeless people, depending on
the place and situation. Sometimes I feel revulsion when I see an unsightly and
unsanitary tent area alongside the Burke Gilman trail. Sometimes I understand
why parents and young kids walking by the Ballard Commons might feel
uncomfortable or fearful. Sometimes I feel compassion, and sometimes I feel
ashamed and upset about how we as a society and community have a long ways
to go to come to grips with homelessness in our city and country.
I propose to respond to homelessness by creating neighborhood teams of
outreach workers, community members, places of worship, local businesses, and
police and community service officers to provide services to homeless people.
We need to significantly increase shelter units, and both transitional and
permanent supportive housing. We need more funding for shelters and housing
and for behavioral and mental health outreach workers.
It is important that all people feel safe in parks and along sidewalks. That
includes people who are homeless. But parks and sidewalks are not places for
camping overnight. The teams can let campers in such places know that if there
is no shelter or housing available, then they need to move to places away from
parks or sidewalks.
I do not favor encampment sweeps or emergency FEMA style shelters.
Indiscriminate sweeps simply move people from one place to another. I do
support letting campers know they need to move from parks and sidewalks to
less public spaces if shelters or housing is not available. I think that mass camps
such as FEMA style shelters would have poor conditions to help homeless
people with mental health issues to get better. Being put together with people
who have a variety of conditions or issues seems like a recipe for unrest and
discord.
Homeless people are diverse. Some are LGBTQ youth who have been
abandoned by their families. Some are women who have escaped from a
domestic violence household. Some are young men who have experienced
sexual abuse by family members, bounced around in the foster care system, or
recently been released from incarceration. Some are people who have fallen on
hard times and can't make ends meet. Services tailored to circumstances are
what's needed, rather than creating a mass camp.
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An Inspiring Conversation

The other night, while out knocking on doors, I met a most inspiring woman. A retired schoolteacher, she and her husband have an empty nest house. Somehow she became interested in the plight of refugee families who become homeless. It is easy for resettled refugees again to face upheaval and displacement, this time in their new country. Public assistance for refugee families can run out pretty quickly. Anyway, this woman takes high-school age East African women under her wing. One or two at a time live in her house, and she supports them while they finish high school. She also works to prepare them to apply for college, in partnership with the College Access Now program. She is especially proud of one of her current students. This young woman is the first girl in her big family to receive an education, the first to finish high school, and the first to attend college. She will start studies at the UW Bothell campus this fall. I believe this illustrates how a village can help raise a child and how someone can overcome steep odds to achieve their dream of an education.
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On the issue of homelessness

Last night while doorbelling I spoke with a woman who lives on the edge of Carkeek Park. She told me about one or two homeless men who have been living in the park very close to her yard over the last two years. She came to know one of them pretty well. She worried for his safety when she saw big branches atop one of the tents after a windstorm. She called 911, and was relieved when police said they found no one inside. She is annoyed by the trash at the site and repelled by the stench of human waste. Yet she doesn't want to report the encampment. As long as they keep to themselves, and maintain clean spaces, she would be totally fine with them living there.

I think that this is an ambivalence that many of us who are fortunate to be housed feel towards people who are homeless. And the ambivalence may be harder to tolerate by people who experience more direct impacts. I think about the woman at the other night's meet and greet who told of living near the electrical substation at NW 47th and 8th NW. She has found needles and a jar of urine in her yard. She said that if her children, now grown, were a lot younger, she would be out of that neighborhood.

https://www.edpottharst.com/july_11_doorbell_tales

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BLOCK Project

While doorbelling the other night, I came across the BLOCK Project. I saw several yard and window signs that said, "Yes, in my backyard." I inquired at one house, and the owner proudly told me that he and his partner were hosts to a BLOCK home in their backyard. A young woman who had previously been homeless was now living there with her two-week old baby. The BLOCK Project welcomes neighbors to the task of ending homelessness by placing small backyard homes in Seattle's residential neighborhoods. The goal is one BLOCK home per block. Each 125-square-foot home is designed to be off-grid, self-sufficient, and features a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area, solar panels, gray water system, etc. Social service agencies such as Mary's Place refer people who are homeless. There is a matchmaking process between neighbor hosts and residents. What a wonderful housing initiative and community-building project!

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Thoughts on Privilege

I have a few thoughts about privilege that I would like to share. 

While doorbelling, I am acutely aware that as a tall, white male, I feel safe going door to door all the way up to 9:00pm on summer nights. And because of my race, I will most likely not be stopped by police as I canvas the largely white neighborhoods of District 6.

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July 11 - Doorbell Tales

Last night while doorbelling I spoke with a woman who lives on the edge of Carkeek Park. She told me about one or two homeless men who have been living in the park very close to her yard over the last two years. She came to know one of them pretty well. She worried for his safety when she saw big branches atop one of the tents after a windstorm. She called 911, and was relieved when police said they found no one inside. She is annoyed by the trash at the site and repelled by the stench of human waste. Yet she doesn't want to report the encampment. As long as they keep to themselves, and maintain clean spaces, she would be totally fine with them living there.

I think that this is an ambivalence that many of us who are fortunate to be housed feel towards people who are homeless. And the ambivalence may be harder to tolerate by people who experience more direct impacts. I think about the woman at the other night's meet and greet who told of living near the electrical substation at NW 47th and 8th NW. She has found needles and a jar of urine in her yard. She said that if her children, now grown, were a lot younger, she would be out of that neighborhood.

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July 10 - Parks Meetings and Doorbelling

Back to the doors after a wonderful community meeting last night in West Seattle to celebrate a design for a new park to be built in 2020 (my day job with Seattle Parks and Recreation) and a great meet and greet tonight hosted by our neighbors (thank you, John and Mary Kay!).

The first door was a man who owns a commercial fishing boat at Fisherman's Terminal. He does a lot of business at the maritime shops along Shilshole Avenue in Ballard. We had a great chat about the missing link in the Burke-Gilman bicycle and pedestrian trail. He thought it made most sense to have the trail run along the railroad tracks next to Shilshole all the way from Fred Meyer to the Ballard Locks. The City has already compromised with some maritime interests by agreeing to put the trail along Market St for about three blocks just east of the Locks and then the rest along the tracks. It's way past time to move forward with construction and fill in the long-awaited missing link segment!

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Ed Pottharst in Conversation with Erik Haugaard

The following interview was written and conducted by Erik Haugaard:

A couple of Fridays ago I battled the evening rush hour traffic, going over four blocks from my house to “Grumpy D’s” coffee house to meet Ed Pottharst for a sit down discussion of his candidacy. I was not terribly happy about being on the road that time of day so given my mood I think it was a good location choice. 

It occurred to me that, “Well I certainly could have walked.” Feeling a bit guilty about that I assured myself that I had already been to the gym that day and too much exercise was probably a very bad thing. 

I was a bit early so I got my coffee, sat down and then promptly received an email explaining that Ed would be just a little late, which left me time to survey the goings on in this local coffee house. There were several small groups of high school kids that were doing their homework together and a few tech-types hunched over their laptops.

 Grumpy’s is a pleasant place with good coffee, my wife and I have been there a handful of times. I noticed a sign on the wall stating “Grumpy Hour” I was curious about just what a Grumpy hour could be and was going to ask the barista when Ed walked in the door.

 I had done almost no research on Ed but when he walked in what was readily apparent is that he is quite athletic, lean and fit; clearly in good shape. Ed grabbed a bottle of water and came over and introduced himself. I noticed that he had a bit of perspiration on his face and idly wondered if the AC in his car had gone out because it was one of those warm June days. 

As it turns out the AC in Ed’s car was just fine, rather he had just ridden his bike seven miles from his job at the Parks and Recreation Department, downtown near Uwaijimaya. Ed rides his bike every day, rain or shine negotiating his way through downtown to work. For you bike enthusiasts, Ed rides a Bianchi Volpe 27-speed bike, and he recently passed the 20,000-mile mark, a feat he accomplished in just the last five years . . . . . .

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