Five months and $100,000 later, Seattle City Council asks: Where are the street sinks?

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A “Seattle Street Sink” has a utility sink, a soap dispenser, a planter box and a garden hose. The water drains into the planter box, which acts like a rain garden. (Daniel Beekman / The Seattle Times)

Last November, the Seattle City Council earmarked $100,000 intended to quickly set up dozens of new hand-washing facilities around the city — a resource to meet the desperate needs of more than 3,700 unsheltered people in Seattle after the pandemic closed access to running water at businesses and other public spaces.

Five months later, as shelters are bottlenecked and thousands of people living outdoors still struggle to practice basic hygiene, those sinks are still nowhere to be found.

In a Thursday council meeting, lawmakers pressed representatives from Seattle Public Utilities and the Department of Neighborhoods about the delay.

“Where are the hand-washing facilities and why is it taking so long?” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda asked.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

The original budget item was inspired by a street-sink model developed by the Clean Hands Collective, a coalition of University of Washington professors, architects, the homeless advocacy group Real Change and a middle-school student who runs a handwashing-advocacy campaign.

With their model, the collective estimated that $100,000 would pay for 63 sinks across the city. But without city funds, the project will disappear, said Real Change advocacy director Tiffani McCoy (who sits on Project Homeless’ advisory board).

“We are ready to go,” McCoy said. “We did our needs assessment, we have 45 or 49 locations selected with help from every district council member ready to go.”

In a presentation to the council, Seattle Public Utilities and the Department of Neighborhoods shared a timeline that distributes the dollars in June, possibly through multiple grants to several organizations.

The officials also shared a set of regulatory hurdles for the sinks, ranging from Seattle Plumbing Code rules to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

Other challenges had to be considered too, Seattle Public Utilities general manager Mami Hara said.

“We have found through the hygiene program, and a lot of other folks’ experience with public sinks, is the sinks have to be really durable and kind of resilient against lots and lots of different kinds of things that can happen to them,” Hara said.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis urged the departments to work with the council on moving beyond those regulatory hurdles, invoking the ways the city has used temporary permits to allow for outdoor dining during the pandemic.

“I’d rather look for a way that we can work as [Seattle Public Utilities] and a council to respond to this the same way that we responded to streateries, to restaurants, the same way that we’ve responded to having these meetings remotely,” Lewis said. “We’re making all sorts of temporary adaptations to how work is typically done to respond to the unique consequences of a global pandemic, and that gives us a lot more flexibility, as we’ve seen.”

As Seattle grapples with COVID-19 crisis, city leaders weigh budget decisions big and small (2020)

The conversation echoed one almost exactly a year ago, when the city’s lack of hygiene resources available to people living outside quickly escalated a crisis outdoors.

In 2019, the council had set aside $1.3 million for five mobile pit stops, which include bathrooms, handwashing, needle and pet-waste disposal. Yet by the time COVID-19 restrictions had shut down businesses and public spaces that homeless people relied on for hygiene in March 2020, the city hadn’t yet purchased those pit stops.

After the pandemic began, the city added 15 hand-washing stations, two shower trailers, 14 portable toilets, reopened five library bathrooms and distributed hygiene kits. City officials cited cost as a prohibitive factor to adding more bathroom facilities as well as vandalism to the mobile toilets themselves.

Other West Coast cities have outpaced Seattle in adding new hand-washing stations and bathrooms in response to the crisis.

Portland, which has an estimated unsheltered homeless population of roughly 1,700 people as of Multnomah County’s 2019 point-in-time count, has deployed 22 hand-washing stations and 100 portable toilets across the city.

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