In February, Sound Transit held a meeting at Seattle’s El Centro De La Raza to discuss changes to its fare enforcement policy. At question were practices that potentially discriminated against homeless people and people of color, and what could be done to make public transit safer for people.
A month later, Sound Transit board members tried to meet telephonically to approve the potential changes — increasing the number of warnings before a ticket, for example — but were stymied by rules requiring public input in major government decisions.
That hasn’t been the case for other, arguably more substantial, changes that have taken effect since the coronavirus began spreading throughout the Puget Sound region and the country. Suddenly, things like stopping the sweeps of people experiencing homelessness, reducing the jail population, eliminating transit fares and even improved commutes and air pollution were possible when advocates had been told for years that they weren’t.
That begs the question — if the “extreme” actions taken since the coronavirus are already in place when the crisis ends, what changes will the region be able to keep?
Some of them just aren’t that implausible under good circumstances, said Marcy Bowers, executive director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network (SPAN).
SPAN has been fighting to make it easier for Washingtonians to access benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, a program that supports parents. Changes allowing people to call in for orientation and dispense with looking for work at a time when jobs aren’t plentiful will make a big difference in people’s lives, Bowers said.
TANF puts money in the pockets of low-income families and Washington state’s WorkFirst program — the state’s version of TANF — has been shown to decrease the number of otherwise eligible families and disproportionately impact Black and Brown families.
None of that is necessary, Bowers said.
“If you can do it from home during a pandemic, you can do it from home any other time,” Bowers said.
After the coronavirus hit, King County found the money to purchase a motel to give people a place to self-quarantine. New facilities opened to ensure that shelter providers could give people 6 feet of distance between sleeping clients. Fare enforcement ended on Sound Transit and King County Metro, meaning people who could not afford a $2.75 fare were no longer saddled with a $124 ticket, involving them in the court system when they could not pay. Local jails emptied so that the inmates that remained could maintain a safe distance from others.
Organizations like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), which connects low-level offenders with services and housing, think that they can provide needed relief to the criminal justice system even after the coronavirus crisis is over, said Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association.
“Rather than returning them to jail, we’re offering the option for wraparound supports that will support people in place and allow for compliance,” Daugaard said.
It’s not easy doing LEAD’s work during a pandemic — case loads that were already twice as high as they ought to be doubled again as staff call out of work to protect themselves from the virus. Daugaard herself was calling around on March 28 trying to get a client tested and in a quarantine facility.
“The need right now is one for a more flexible team that is really oriented on getting people into temporary housing and keeping them there,” Daugaard said. “This is not permanent housing — normally everybody is oriented around permanent housing, but we’re in a more emergency situation than that.”
Other gains secured during the crisis may not be sustainable. The city and county are dependent on sales and business taxes in a state without income taxes. That will make it hard to hold onto a fare-free transit system after all of this is over. According to a King County Metro budget document, roughly 15 percent of revenue used to support the system comes from fares.
That doesn’t mean that advocates are done fighting to get transit passes in the hands of workers when people are once again allowed to start coming back to work.
The Transit Riders Union (TRU) will continue fighting for ORCA for All, a program that would exempt low-income people from paying fares in an effort to connect marginalized groups with free transit and prevent inequitable interactions with the court system, said Katie Wilson, the TRU’s general secretary. The movement also calls on employers to offer transit passes similar to those held by public-sector employees.
Unlike other groups, such as those who are fighting to preserve the moratorium on sweeps of homeless people, TRU doesn’t want the county to continue its new normal. Although fares have gone away, transit service has also been cut.
“We’re looking at deep service cuts,” Wilson said.
In other respects, the modifications brought by the coronavirus have not gone far enough.
Nikkita Oliver — attorney, activist and artist — has been fighting against a racist carceral system for a long time. In February, she and other advocates dressed in orange jumpsuits to protest the opening of the Children and Family Justice Center, a $242 million court and juvenile detention complex commonly referred to as the youth jail.
While King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that the county would draw down the jail population to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak, that still leaves many people inside and vulnerable to the disease just for being accused of a crime, Oliver said.
“In a pandemic, I think people should be allowed to go home if they can and be in a space where they can protect themselves,” Oliver said.
A lack of testing means that it’s hard to know who has the disease, and inmates are sitting ducks, confined in enclosed spaces and without adequate access to hygiene. According to The New York Times, at least 167 inmates and 137 corrections staff and health workers at Rikers Island prison tested positive for COVID-19, a crisis that one doctor referred to as “a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.”
Steps now can prevent transmission in the jails, Oliver said, but it shouldn’t have taken a virus to let vulnerable people out of incarceration. She spoke at a press conference with Columbia Legal Services, which announced a lawsuit over the response to the COVID-19 crisis in state prisons.
“Why can’t we make these changes happen when our communities are healthy, when we’re not dealing with the virus?” Oliver asked. “These are not things that make our public safer, and not something that promotes justice.
“I think it’s really important that we continue to think about what makes a community healthy, what makes a community safe when we’re not in a global pandemic.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 1-7, 2020 issue.