The Downtown Emergency Service Center will open a new shelter at the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center in an effort to maintain “social distancing” between clients by setting cots at least six feet apart, according to DESC director Daniel Malone. The city announced the new shelter in a press release last night. “In the rooms of our existing shelters where we have beds, we can’t keep people in all the beds and maintain six feet of distance,” Malone says. The new space is not a walk-in shelter, and clients will be chosen by DESC.
The shelter, which will be for men only, is for people experiencing homelessness who are not medically fragile and don’t exhibit symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. In the coming days, some clients will likely also be housed at motels, Malone told The C Is for Crank. As of last night, DESC was figuring out how to redistribute shelter space to create a similar setup for women somewhere in one of its existing shelters.
DESC does not have immediate plans to operate shelters for unhoused people who contract or have symptoms of COVID-19. King County has purchased a motel in Kent and is standing up modular units at sites around King County, including at Interbay and in North Seattle, for this purpose.
Malone says the city and DESC haven’t formulated a specific plan that goes beyond the immediate future—for example, if there is a large-scale outbreak of the novel coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness and many people need to be isolated or quarantined, or if new recommendations or mandates go beyond social distancing. “All we’re doing now is buying a little bit of time,” he says.
Coronavirus is not airborne; it spreads through droplets that can survive for some time on surfaces.
Malone said the point of the new shelter was to give current clients more physical space and reduce the number of people in close quarters at its current shelter. The city’s announcement, however, refers to the need to increase shelter capacity generally to accommodate more people.
There has been some debate about whether unsheltered people are relatively safer from COVID-19 living outdoors, where they are more exposed to the elements but are also not sleeping among crowds of potentially infected people, or in shelters. “Being in the open air, I suppose, has some protective effect, but that may be offset by less access to hygiene,” Malone says.
Malone says DESC is not at imminent risk of running out of hygiene supplies, other than masks, which are in short supply internationally.