Seattle Pays Premium for Shower Trailers, Regional Leaders Still Support Mass Shelter Over Hotels


Hygiene trailers at King County’s COVID assessment and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. Two mobile hygiene trailers that the city of Seattle is renting from a California-based company called VIP Restrooms will likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to operate, Seattle Public Utilities confirms. The city budget adopted last year included funding to purchase and operate five mobile hygiene trailers, which include showers and toilets, at an estimated cost of $1.3 million, but the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department, which oversaw the project until SPU took over last month, did not start working to procure them until mid-March, when the COVID-19 epidemic was already underway and most of the available trailers had been snapped up by other jurisdictions.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, according to a spokeswoman for SPU, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, depending on how many times the water is pumped out per day (the estimates range from once to six times daily), plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for “security [and] cleaning and hygiene supplies like towels, shampoo and soap,” according to SPU.

Security costs can be considerable, perhaps especially during the pandemic. For example, the city is currently paying Phoenix Security Corp $120,000 a month, or $90 an hour, to maintain 24-hour patrols at two “redistribution” shelters at community centers, each containing 50 guests from  existing shelters run by nonprofits such as the YWCA, Catholic Community Services, and Compass Housing. While it’s unclear whether the city plans to hire Phoenix guards to patrol the restrooms as well, Phoenix recently placed a large number of ads for new armed and unarmed security guard jobs in Seattle, starting at $17 an hour.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for security and supplies, according to SPU.

Other cities provide mobile showers at much lower cost. For example, in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called Shower of Hope operates showers at 24 sites at a much lower cost than the price Seattle is paying for its temporary shower trailers. Mel Tillekeratne, the founder and executive director of Shower of Hope, says the trailers themselves typically cost about $30,000 to buy, although “you could buy a high-end one for $60,000,” plus about $1,200 each to operate per day. Shower of Hope trailers don’t operate every day, but if they did, that would work out to about $36,000 in operating costs every month, a price tag that includes staffing (usually, shower staffers make $16 an hour, but Shower of Hope has bumped that up a few bucks during the COVID-19 outbreak).

Tillekeratne says he thinks cities like Seattle are being gouged by private companies because so many cities are scrambling to provide services during a crisis that they should have taken care of years ago. “This is decades of neglect that now they’re paying a premium to address,” he says.

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In Seattle, Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee says the shower building LIHI installed at its tiny house village in Interbay, which is hooked up to plumbing and electricity, cost about $50,000; a shower trailer with a gray water tank at Camp Second Chance in West Seattle cost between $25,000 and $30,000, plus about $1,200 a month to pump out gray water from the showers.

“For the price they’re renting [them for], we could just build them,” Lee says. Last week, Lee sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department offering to “build hygiene facilities and locate them in Sodo… Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere,” to staff existing public restrooms in Pioneer Square and at pools in Ballard and the Central District, and to open up more tiny house villages around the city. Lee says she has not heard back from the mayor’s office or HSD.

2. As the city of Seattle pays hundreds of thousands of dollars staffing and patrolling spaces where homeless people sleep head to toe, with six feet separating them from the people to their right and left, advocates have repeatedly made the point that congregate shelters do not allowed the social isolation that housed people are told to practice if they want to avoid COVID infection. In LA, mayor Eric Garcetti threatened to commandeer hotel rooms if the hotels didn’t make them available for homeless people.

Here in Seattle and King County, however, only a relative handful of people experiencing homelessness have been able to access hotels (well, motels) as an alternative to large mass shelters. Earlier this month, about 390 clients of three shelter providers moved to three motels in Renton, Bellevue, and SeaTac, a scant 3 percent of the county’s homeless population of more than 12,000. The city of Seattle rented out a high-end downtown hotel for first responders at a cost of around $1 million a month, but has preferred to move people from crowded shelters into slightly less crowded ones, rather than give them their own hotel rooms.

During a press briefing last week, King County health officer Jeff Duchin responded to a question about hotels by reiterating the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for congregate shelters. Snohomish County’s Public Health Officer, Chris Spitters, said his county is promoting “widespread use of hotel/motel vouchers at an unprecedented rate,” but added that motel vouchers can have “side effects. … It’s definitely a good disease control tool to disaggregate and spread people apart. On the other hand, it moves them away from services that, in the long run, they need, so it’s a real challenge to find the balance.”

3. Meanwhile, a 180-bed “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller mentioned during a contentious public meeting about hygiene services for unsheltered people may not materialize. Homeless advocates I spoke to this week and last say that Sixkiller’s offhand comment that “we are siting a shelter tent here in the city for 180 individuals” was the first they’d heard of such a proposal, and a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, which was supposed to staff and run the tent, would say only that “the project has been discussed [but] is not yet confirmed.” Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Durkan’s office, responded to my questions by saying, “the City is having conversations about options and there is nothing else to share at this time.”