Think of the children who might put their mouths on those plants, says the city.
Think of the children who might put their mouths on those plants, says the city. BRICE MARYMAN

Last year, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved funding for an urban design program that would install sinks on hose bibs around the city, adding vital hygiene services in a town that's sorely lacking in public restrooms and sinks. The sinks, however, still haven't been funded.

Councilmember Tammy Morales brought forward the budget item after the Clean Hands Collective, a partnership between Real Change and a group of University of Washington architecture and design professors, developed a street sink prototype. The model was a simple sink hooked up to a deep-tubbed basin filled with a modular rainwater garden that naturally filtered out wastewater. It was inexpensive, functional, and beautiful.

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Originally, Morales had only asked for $58,000 to spread the sinks across the city, but the council loved the idea so much that they expanded the funds to $100,000. The money would go to the Clean Hands Collective to build out 63 sinks around town so people could access water and wash their hands to help stop the spread of diseases like COVID-19, Hepatitis A, and shigella. Right now, it's not clear that will happen.

It's been six months since the mayor signed the budget, and the Clean Hands Collective hasn't received its funding. In fact, they might not even get the funding at all.

Instead of awarding the funding Morales specified in the budget, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DON) will create a "grant" system to fund "community mutual-aid" efforts that expand hygiene city-wide.

The departments are calling the grant the Seattle Water & Waste Innovation Funding Program. The program will award $150,000—including the $100,000 from Morales's budget item for sinks, plus $50,000 for food access—to two or three groups. This "one-time funding" will go toward "mutual aid efforts that make hygiene resources more accessible to the public, reduce illegal dumping and litter, and avoid the wasting of food and other materials."

Sabrina Register, a spokesperson with SPU, wrote in an email that SPU and DON were "inspired by the efforts of community groups in response to COVID-19 and are excited to see creative and new ideas generated by this program."

Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change and a member of the Clean Hands Collective, was perplexed about the city changing the goal for funding that was originally meant solely for hand-washing stations.

McCoy isn't sure what happened. Neither is Devin Silvernail, a legislative aide for Morales.

Silvernail explained that the collective was so sure about their contract with the city that they funded a study back in January to see where to site sinks. They could be on the hook for the cost of that study if the collective doesn't receive any funding.

One potential hiccup was that SPU and the DON took issue with the prototype design, Silvernail said. City concerns ranged from the sink hoses freezing during the winter to ADA inaccessibility to runoff water contaminating other drinking water. The departments were even concerned that kids would eat the soil in the modular rain garden, which the collective may need to cover up in future designs if the sinks go forward.

SPU and DON were so against using running water that the departments suggested creating hand sanitizer stations instead. That idea explicitly goes against public health recommendations for people to have access to soap and running water to fight disease. The sanitizer suggestion also contradicts Deputy Mayor (and fresh mayoral candidate) Casey Sixkiller's argument that homeless people would steal hand sanitizer from hygiene stations.

These issues usually wouldn't mean the city would pull funding, though, Silvernail explained.

"There’s plenty of things out there that are awarded money before getting some issues completely hammered out," Silvernail said.

According to McCoy, the city's concerns about the sink prototypes bubbled up right after Durkan signed the budget.

"I had made it very clear that I wanted to address [the problems] right away and site sinks as soon as possible," McCoy said. That didn't happen, though.

SPU and DON will likely award grant funding to a hand sanitizer program in addition to other hygiene programs, Silvernail said. He said Morales's office has "stood pretty firm reminding" SPU and DON that they "want the Clean Hands Collective to get this contract." That's no guarantee, however. The collective will have to apply to the grant program to be considered for funding, slowing down the rollout of sinks even more.

When I emailed the UW architects from the collective about their take on the grant process, one wrote back to say the news was "frustrating." Later, the professors said that they couldn't do an interview for fear that it would jeopardize their relationship with the city.

McCoy stressed that failure to grant the collective the funding for the sink program could end the relationship between the city and the Clean Hands Collective because these professors "are just donating free labor and free time on an issue the city should be leading on."

McCoy said she believes the language-change as well as the grant and the application processes are just a form of "stalling."

"This falls square in the lap of the mayor," McCoy said. "She has a detailed history of not sending money that the city council allocates on projects she does not want to fund."

This experience has felt like déjà vu for McCoy, who worked on a budget item for mobile hygiene trailers that passed in 2019. The mayor's office dragged its feet funding that project until after cities across the country desperately needed hygiene trailers when the pandemic hit.

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Judging by a timeline SPU released about the grant program, the city will not implement the contracted programs until this coming July.

"If this was a priority Durkan would just release this money to us," McCoy said. "If we are truly in a public health emergency and truly in a homelessness emergency, it seems like the apex is taking away barriers to fight communicable diseases."

The city council will discuss the street sink program in Councilmember Andrew Lewis's Select Committee on Homelessness Strategies and Investments Thursday at 2 p.m. Applications for the grant Seattle Water & Waste Innovation Funding Program are due on Friday.

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