Beware the big, bad street sink, city departments warn.
Beware the big, bad street sink, city departments warn. ELIZABETH GOLDMAN

On Thursday, Seattle Public Utilities and the Department of Neighborhoods gave a presentation to the Seattle City Council on the progress around a yet-to-be-implemented street sink program to expand hygiene services that advocates say is mired by mayoral inaction.

Instead of funding 63 public sinks for $100,000 like the council required in the 2021 budget, SPU and DON created a grant program to dole out that money, plus an extra $50,000, to any community organization that wanted to apply to expand "mutual aid," according to the presentation from SPU general manager Mami Hara and DON director Andrés Matilla.

Judging from heated council member remarks during the committee meeting, the council members did not know of SPU and DON's plan to pivot away from funding street sinks. The conversation exposed the limits of the council's power—they can allocate program funding, but they cannot steer how the money is spent. That's the mayor's job.

After just one slide, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda interrupted the presentation to voice her frustration.

"Six months ago we put funding in for a specific type of hand-washing facility," Mosqueda said, citing the street sink model from the Clean Hands Collective that the budget directed funding to. "This wasn’t a question of 'What kind of innovation strategies can we couple [street sinks] with?' it was 'How fast can we get these dollars out to very low-cost, already-proven, hand-washing techniques?'"

Mosqueda continued: "So I’d like to ask at the front of this meeting: Where are the hand-washing facilities?"

Hara and Mantilla stressed that SPU and DON intended to distribute the funds via a grant program after they ran into various issues with the sinks.

For instance, Hara implied that the sinks could actually spread diseases through "contaminated water" in the same way a Shigella outbreak is spreading through encampments currently, which is ironic since the whole point of the sinks is to give encampments a water source so they can wash their hands and limit disease spreading. You know, like public health guidelines recommend. Hara listed more issues such as the sinks being tripping hazards, or that the sinks weren't "durable" enough.

But SPU and DON didn't raise these concerns to council members before switching to the new grant process. Also, it's not clear when the departments changed course since the Clean Hands Collective assumed they would be getting $100,000 as recently as January when they conducted a survey on where to site sinks in each district with input from every council member.

Councilmember Tammy Morales, who brought forward the original street sink budget item, said she understood Hara and Mantilla had to adhere to city regulations, but she said this was "a lot of handwringing over standard utility issues that we should have anticipated and addressed earlier."

The Clean Hands Collective indicated in previous interviews with The Stranger that they were ready and willing to make changes to the sinks, but city departments hadn't given them the opportunity, or money, to do so.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis asked Hara which sink issues were legally binding and which ones were "highly desirable, but could be waived by yourself or someone in the executive department?"

Hara did not have an answer. She and Mantilla hadn't considered those options before.

Mosqueda agreed, saying that it "would have been incredibly important to look at what the options were to waive" certain rules since "hand-washing is paramount here."

Lewis indicated his interest in exploring workarounds or loopholes to implement the street sinks during the COVID-19 public health crisis similar to the ways the council bent city code to create outdoor street cafes or to implement an eviction moratorium.

It's not clear where the street sink conversation stands now. SPU and DON will go through with their grant program and award the $150,000 to one to three organizations sometime in June. Morales and other council members stressed that they would like to see the Clean Hands Collective receive a grant.

Mosqueda also pointed out she didn't want them to receive less than the $100,000 the budget guaranteed the collective for the street sinks work, since whichever organizations receive the grant will split $150,000. Hara said one organization could possibly receive the lion's share of the funding, but it wasn't a guarantee.

Morales chimed in that the "goal isn’t to build super sinks, the point is to get sinks out throughout the city so folks have access to running water."