As COVID-19 Rages, Cities Struggle to Move People from Shelters into Safer Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square.

This excerpt is from a piece I wrote for Huffington Post, where you can read the entire story.

Ordinarily, the atmosphere in the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter in Seattle was just this side of chaos. During the day, men and women crowded into the community room and hung out in a narrow corridor known as the “bowling alley,” arguing, sleeping and jockeying for space.

At night, the clients settled into metal bunks without pillows or sheets, trying to sleep through the sounds and smells of dozens of other people all around them.

These days, though, the space is quiet. Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC began reducing capacity, and in early March, the city moved the remaining 129 residents to an exhibition hall near the Space Needle. One month later, King County moved them to a Red Lion hotel in Renton, a suburb just southeast of Seattle. The move gave them access to real beds, private showers, and three meals a day ― amenities that were unimaginable before COVID-19.

For some, it’s the first time they’ve slept in a bed, in a room with four walls and a door that locks, in years. The difference, both physically and psychologically, is profound. “Staying at the shelter downtown, you’re always at risk. People are stealing from you. There’s junkies shooting up by you. People just want to attack you,” said Michael C., who asked HuffPost to use his first name and last initial only to protect his privacy. “And here it’s a safe place.”

“I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Dan Williams, DESC’s shelter operations manager, said that after staying in the hotel for just a week or so, Michael was unrecognizable ― so much so that Williams followed him down the hallway when he walked in one day, thinking he wasn’t supposed to be there.

“To see this individual, compared to the way that I knew him a month ago, I didn’t know who he was,” Williams said. “His whole presentation was different. He felt comfortable to shower, because it wasn’t in this group setting where anybody could blow through that door at any second.”

Marcus M., another resident who asked to use his first name and last initial only, said the biggest difference is that he doesn’t have to fight for space or deal with the constant threat of confrontation. He would normally sleep in the shelter’s day room because he found the cavernous bunk room too noisy and chaotic. In the hotel, “I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Across the country, local governments are engaged in a debate about the most effective way to shelter people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Some have moved people to larger spaces, such as rec centers and convention halls, where they can sleep farther apart in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Other places, including Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco, have also begun moving homeless people into hotels, usually focusing on those who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable.

“What he needed was to be treated with dignity. That was it. And congregate homeless shelters do not do that.”

It’s not just about what’s safer. At the core of the debate is the question of cost ― hotels are generally more expensive than shelters ― and what it will mean when the pandemic is over.

Shelters have problems that extend beyond the spread of COVID-19. If it turns out that cities could have mobilized quickly to house people all along, it may be hard to justify putting people back in shelters once the immediate crisis is over.

For now, cities are beginning to move toward a hotel model for housing people. But many have struggled to do so efficiently. In late March, the city of San Francisco announced that it would open the George R. Moscone Convention Center as a shelter for 400 people, with mats placed six feet apart and divided by lines of tape ― an arrangement that opponents derided as an indoor concentration camp.

After a week of protests from homeless advocates and city supervisors, the city switched gears, downsizing plans for the shelter and committing to moving more unsheltered people into hotels to meet physical distancing directives. On April 10, the city publicly acknowledged a major COVID-19 outbreak at the Multi-Service Center-South Shelter, the largest shelter in the city.

San Francisco counted more than 17,000 people experiencing homelessness last year using a new method that more than doubled the 8,000 found in the most recent traditional one-night count. Mayor London Breed said in early April that the city would secure 7,000 hotel rooms as temporary shelter, and on April 15, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance directing Breed to increase that to 8,250 hotel rooms. Breed refused to sign the ordinance, saying it didn’t “acknowledge the challenges of operating these sites.”

As of late last week, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco said that fewer than 700 homeless people had moved into hotels. At a press conference last Wednesday, Breed said that “it’s difficult to project a timeline” for moving more people into hotels.

“We can’t fight a plague while exempting more than 10,000 people from any ability to stay inside and protect themselves,” said Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In Seattle, where dozens of COVID-19 cases have been linked to homeless shelters, Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted the idea of leasing or buying hotels for homeless residents. The city government is separate from that of King County, which contains Seattle and which has invested in hotel rooms like those at the Red Lion.

Durkan spokesperson Ernesto Apreza says the Federal Emergency Management Agency would only reimburse the city for hotel rooms for people who have been exposed to COVID-19, are over 65, or are otherwise vulnerable. “FEMA requires most sheltering support to be in a congregate setting,” Apreza said.

In fact, numerous states have already requested, and some have received, reimbursement for hotel rooms for the general homeless population, not just those who are “vulnerable.” In Connecticut, where FEMA already expanded reimbursement once to include domestic violence victims, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) made all shelter residents eligible for hotel rooms and is asking FEMA to expand its reimbursement qualifications again. New York, which is moving people into hotel rooms regardless of whether they’re “vulnerable” under the early federal guidelines, has already received FEMA reimbursement. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, states that take the initiative by expanding eligibility and requesting funds under the new criteria have a good chance of being reimbursed.

Read the rest of the story at HuffPost.

One thought on “As COVID-19 Rages, Cities Struggle to Move People from Shelters into Safer Housing”

  1. How can the public best support Seattle, King County, and the State of Washington. Shall we petition FEMA, our State and Federal electorate? Where will pressure best be applied to make secure housing a basic human right?

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