COVID-19 has shelter providers scrambling to protect homeless people against the coming winter weather
By SCOTT GREENSTONE | The Seattle Times | Published: October 22, 2020
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SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — On any given day before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary's Place in Seattle had more families calling to ask for shelter than it had beds available.
That changed after the outbreak hit and state and local eviction moratoriums went into place to help people struggling financially. This summer, Mary's Place had space for any homeless family seeking help — even though it lost almost a quarter of its 675 beds after closing shelters where people couldn't keep their distance.
"They were able to stay in their homes ... or they were finding other solutions," said James Flynn, chief program officer at Mary's Place. "Also, among some people, (there's) a hesitation to enter a communal space."
But now, as the weather cools and people run out of options, Mary's Place is once again beyond capacity, Flynn said.
With winter on the way, Flynn and other shelter providers expect more people who could manage living outside in the summer to seek shelter. What's more, federal money that's helped pay to move hundreds of people from crowded shelters into hotel rooms is set to run out in December.
That's left homeless advocates and service providers worrying there won't be enough space to safely house those who need to get inside.
"It's really hard to plan for a crisis that you see in the coming months because we're still dealing with the crisis that we're in," said Dan Wise, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services Western Washington. "But I am concerned that folks who have really high behavioral health needs are not going to have a way to get out of severe weather."
King County and its suburban cities are discussing opening cold-weather shelters as they have in years past, but the coronavirus, which spreads more easily in crowded, indoor spaces, complicates the effort. Five COVID-19 cases sprung up in a temporary shelter the county opened in Sodo last month to protect people living outside from the heavy wildfire smoke.
In a typical year, churches would be opening shelters for those who need to get out of the cold. But many churches are older and not well-ventilated to protect against the virus.
Burien has for the last two years opened the Highline United Methodist Church during cold weather — but that likely won't happen this year because the building doesn't have a modern ventilation system, said the Rev. Jenny Partch, the pastor.
Burien leaders, along with cities across the county, are discussing options with King County officials, but there's "no outcome yet," said Colleen Brandt-Schuler, Burien's Human Services Manager.
"We will have people who, if they stay on the streets, will jeopardize their life, and if they come in, they could get COVID-19. The real question is, which one is a priority?" said Sarah Bridgeford, Community Services Manager at the city of Federal Way.
"You can have serious consequences with both options, and I think most of us (from the suburban cities) at this point are supporting severe weather shelter, whatever that looks like, knowing that it will carry some risk," Bridgeford said.
King County Executive Dow Constantine has proposed a new countywide 0.1% sales tax to buy hotels and other facilities to house 2,000 chronically homeless people. But the housing wouldn't be available until sometime next year, and several suburban cities have already voted to keep the money raised in their cities to fund their own affordable housing projects.
The county also plans to offer about $4 million to nonprofits to make existing shelters outside of the city of Seattle safer by doing things like adding interior partitions in congregate sleeping areas.
Shelters like the Salvation Army's William Booth Center, which focuses on military veterans who are homeless, has reduced the number of beds from 190 to around 90, said Gina Sullivan, director at the shelter.
They've also allowed guests to modify their sleeping spaces.
"We're allowing people to do what we call tenting, or putting sheets all around," Sullivan said. "That's something in normal times we don't allow because we do need to see if people are in their beds."
Catholic Community Services usually operates three rotating shelters in South King County churches during the winter. Those spaces won't be opened this year and instead the nonprofit has purchased hotel rooms using money from the county.
But Wise is worried that the most mentally ill and struggling people who are outside now wouldn't do well in a hotel room.
"How do we work with folks who are really only engaging with shelter as a matter of survival, who normally wouldn't?" Wise said. "I don't know that we have the funding capacity to get everybody in a hotel during the severe weather and I don't know that we have a staffing capacity."
Constantine's 2021 county budget plan, announced last month, would use federal money to keep the county's hotel rooms available through the end of the year and then dip into the county's budget reserves to fund the rooms until March. The county hopes the federal government will provide more aid to local governments to help cover these costs, said Leo Flor, director of the county Department of Community and Human Services.
Romona, 52, who asked that her last name not be used because she doesn't want her co-workers at Safeway to know she's homeless, started staying in Catholic Community Services' Federal Way shelter at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church last November. When the pandemic hit, she stopped going to work because her asthma puts her at risk of serious complications from the respiratory virus.
Then, Catholic Community Services moved her and dozens of other people from shelters in Kent and Renton into a Quality Inn in SeaTac. When she was staying in the shelter, she went to a community pool to shower on workdays. Now in her own room, she can shower every day.
"I feel safe in that room," Romona said. "I can go at night and lock myself in that room and I know no one is going to touch me, or bother me — or kill me."
While Romona has found a sense of safety and stability at the hotel, she doesn't think it will last.
"I want what I've got here, but I want to know I'm not going to lose it," Romona said. "I'm waiting for the day they say OK, now you're out of here."
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