The City Funded Hygiene Trailers Last Year, But Never Bought Them. Now It May be Too Late. Plus More COVID News


1. The city of Seattle has been unable to procure the four hygiene trailers promised by the Human Services Department in mid-March because the trailers are in short supply nationwide due to the coronavirus epidemic, according to multiple sources. The trailers were added to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2020 budget by the City Council last November, but were not purchased by the time the COVID-19 epidemic hit Seattle full force starting in late February. The trailers, known as “mobile pit stops,” would give unsheltered people access to showers, restrooms, and needle disposal. There is a possibility that the city could rent trailers in the short term, but whether and when that might happen remains unclear.

The city did not immediately respond to questions about the delay sent early Wednesday afternoon.

Other cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have recently deployed additional mobile hygiene trailers to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness. (The addition of new hygiene services has been offset by the closure of mobile showers run by the nonprofit Lava Mae, which just announced it was suspending all hygiene services in San Francisco, Berkeley, and, LA because of the pandemic, saying that the company is “not equipped or trained to handle a pandemic.”)

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King County, whose epidemic response has been running parallel to the city’s, began purchasing mobile shower/restroom facilities between late February and early March, according to the director of the county’s Facilities Management Division, Tony Wright. The county has purchased at least a dozen of the mobile units, five of which were on display at a field hospital in Shoreline that the county has set up for groups of non-emergency COVID patients. The others are being deployed at hospitals and isolation sites on Harbor Island, at Harborview Hall on First Hill, in Bellevue, and at the King County Airport.

“It really was a case of, we’ve been through enough emergencies to know that we need to grab them early, so we grabbed them early,” Wright told me during a press tour of the Shoreline facility this morning.

The city council added $1.3 million in funding for mobile hygiene trailers to last year’s budget after a February 2019 audit found that the city provided far too few restrooms, handwashing stations, and showers for the thousands of unsheltered homeless people in Seattle. In early March, the city council approved the mayor’s declaration of civil emergency with a resolution urging the mayor to invest emergency funds specifically in mobile pit stops and handwashing stations.

Durkan announced last week that the city would place port-a-potties with handwashing stations in six locations, four of them in parks that already have public restrooms. The city of Los Angeles, in contrast, has 360 portable handwashing sites.


Locked restrooms at Little Brook Park in north Seattle.

2. In a press release touting the city’s actions on behalf of homeless people during the COVID crisis , Durkan’s office said that there are 128 restrooms open in city parks and community centers. So far, of 28 restrooms on this list that I have checked personally, and three that readers have checked (and verified by sending photos), 21 are open, and 13 are closed. These include not just restrooms in small parks in far-flung parts of the city but large community centers right in its heart.

The city must know, for example, that Garfield and Miller Community Centers—facilities that are being used as redistribution sites for existing shelter beds—are not open to the general public; the city is responsible for these sites, and the prominent “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS” signs on every door were put there by the Seattle Parks Department. So it’s unclear why they have not updated their list of “open” restrooms—or, for that matter, unlocked the ones that remain inaccessible, like those at Little Brook Park in Northeast Seattle, Northacres Park near Aurora Ave. N., Salmon Bay Park in Ballard, Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, or Brighton Park in southeast Seattle.

3. During this morning’s tour of the Shoreline facility, King County Executive Dow Constantine rebuffed questions about whether the county would effectively wall off the field hospitals and other facilities the county is standing up and surround them with security to ensure that no one can leave. (TV reporters, in particular, have been exercised over the idea that homeless people with COVID symptoms will “escape” from hospitals and isolation facilities, after a man left a motel in Kent that was being used as an isolation site.)

“There is going to be security at each facility,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “Each facility is not going to be surrounded by barbed wire. This is not how this works.” 

Constantine said the county was also working to add more “de-intensification” space for homeless shelters where people are still sleeping inches apart. The new locations, where people already staying in shelters are being moved so that they can sleep further apart, are still congregate spaces, raising the question of why—if the guidelines for housed people say we should all be isolating—the county couldn’t just put people who are capable of staying on their own in vacant hotel rooms.

Flor said the county has considered purchasing a motel for this purpose, but said that the county was relying on shelter providers such as Union Gospel Mission, and advocates such as Health Care for the Homeless, to do assessments and decide the best course of action for shelter clients. There is some debate among groups that provide shelter about whether most clients could live independently or need, in effect, supervision. This debate could come to a head as shelter capacity is stretched to its limit, and as more City of Seattle employees are asked to work in shelters.

A primary reason that the city says it has been unable to move many shelter residents out of their current crowded conditions is a lack of staffing—that is, there aren’t enough people to supervise shelter residents. Allowing people who are assessed and found capable of living independently to self-isolate in their own hotel rooms could help solve the overcrowding problem, but it would mean abandoning the idea that every person staying in a shelter needs to be watched over by a supervisor while they sleep.

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