Weeks after heated questioning from Seattle City Council members over the slow progress on a $100,000 street-sink program, Seattle Public Utilities announced this week that it had picked two organizations to split the work.
Six months ago, the council allocated funding to create potentially dozens of street sinks across Seattle for people living outside who lack access to running water and basic hygiene amenities. In recent weeks, council members have stressed the urgency of the program: During the pandemic, gastrointestinal infections among homeless people outside of shelters have exploded, driven by a paucity of public restrooms and shuttered bathrooms at businesses and libraries.
The city selected Clean Hands Collective, a group of architects teamed up with homeless-advocacy nonprofit Real Change that inspired the initial budget proposal, and Seattle Makers, a group led by a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research technician.
But with regulatory barriers unresolved and the full dollar amount split $60,000 and $40,000 between the Clean Hands Collective and Seattle Makers respectively, it’s still somewhat unclear when and how many sinks will arrive.
With the full $100,000, the Clean Hands Collective projected it could place 63 street stinks around the city. Now, Tiffani McCoy, with Real Change, figures they can place 40, hopefully by the end of June.
Alongside siting the units themselves, the Clean Hands Collective aims to have Real Change vendors check on them through a workforce-development program.
Seattle Makers did not respond to requests for comment, but according to materials they submitted to the city, $65,000 would pay for an initial network of roughly 10 hygiene stations that use sensors and cloud computing to detect water levels and trigger maintenance. Each station would have water barrels inside a large steel cube, along with a circuit board, sensors, a nozzle and drain pan.
The group said another $10,000 would pay for artwork installed at the sites, of which they’d hope to build 30 more after the initial deployment.
McCoy said the process of negotiating their model with the city had been frustrating. As of this week, McCoy said, the Clean Hands Collective still does not have a green light on their latest prototype, which the collective initially priced out at between $700 and $800 per unit. The designs the group sent to the city feature a rain garden filled with soil and plants connected to the sinks that are intended to treat gray water.
“We still have more to do to make sure that we can even place these,” McCoy said.
“Sink costs, including maintenance, can be better understood once each grantee has a fully compliant design and works through any siting and maintenance issues,” Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson Sabrina Register said by email.
The decision to award the amount to two organizations, Register said, was so “the city can evaluate models with each other and other city street-sink models.”
At a council meeting earlier this month, Seattle Public Utilities and the Department of Neighborhoods presented a table of challenges for launching the sinks, ranging from regulatory conflicts with the municipal plumbing code to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Council members urged the departments to find ways of moving quickly on the project, similar to how the city issued temporary permits for “streateries“ during the pandemic or set up flip-pump handwashing stations last year.
Jacob Thorpe, policy lead with Councilmember Andrew Lewis’ office, said by email that the city showed it was able to move fast in response to crises like the pandemic and that Lewis believed it “should have worked much more quickly to stand up these sinks once the budget was passed.”
The office of Councilmember Tammy Morales, who originally pitched the project, celebrated the funding award. It took some work to get there, Morales’ district director Devin Silvernail said.
Silvernail, who sat on a review panel of the projects alongside the departments and other city staff, said the city had concerns with possible dripping from a hose and soil that would be contaminated by gray water in the Clean Hands Collective’s model, but both projects needed tweaks. (McCoy said the Clean Hands Collective has since added a grate over the soil in their model so kids won’t eat the dirt.)
Silvernail also said that Seattle Public Utilities agreed to look for additional sources of funding, and that the council would hopefully pass a supplemental budget this summer to fully fund both projects.
“With both of these combined we could potentially have 70, 80, 90 sinks, so at the end of the day we were happy to get where we are,” Silvernail said. “It took a little bit longer than we wanted, but we’re happy where we are now.”