As King County released the latest one-night count of people experiencing homelessness, which showed a significant increase in showing a significant increase in unsheltered homelessness across the county, a motel in Kent that could temporarily shelter dozens of people sits empty. The 84-room formre Econolodge, which the county purchased in March to serve as an isolation and quarantine site for people with confirmed or potential COVID diagnoses who lack a safe place to isolate, is one of four such sites; just two, in Issaquah and North Seattle, are currently operating.
At a briefing Wednesday, King County Department of Health and Community Services director Leo Flor said the county was keeping the motel “warm”—that is, empty and ready to accept new guests—in order to quickly accommodate new isolation and quarantine patients if COVID numbers rise dramatically or in case of a maintenance failure at one of the other sites. “I do not think that we are through with this COVID-19 emergency,” Flor said. “We certainly know in the fall that we need to be ready to provide larger numbers of isolation and quarantine rooms if they become necessary.”
In outlining the post-COVID future of shelter, Flor acknowledged that all the available evidence shows that moving from a shelter to a hotel room can lead to enormous improvements in people’s mental and physical well-being. When DESC shut down its crowded, chaotic downtown shelter and moved those clients, along with others, to a vacant Red Lion hotel in Renton, clients saw dramatic improvements in behavioral health conditions, a surprising outcome I wrote about in May. The privacy and dignity of a private room “in and of itself [causes] a transformation,” Flor said. “Sleeping in a bed, in a place where you feel safe… really seems to be good for people’s health. And the lack of those things seems to be bad for people’s health.”
Flor acknowledged, in a roundabout way, the fact that even a temporary homeless shelter would run into a buzz saw of opposition from local officials. The city, just south of Seattle, has consistently fought proposals for shelters and homeless services; outreach workers in the area say that when police roust unsheltered people and tell them to move along, they sometimes hand out flyers directing people to shelters in Seattle.
“The facility was put into action under a public health rationale, and cities have a role in permitting and in regulating the types of facilities that are within their boundaries, particularly when we are not in emergency situations,” Flor said. “There’s a number of regulatory regimes that are governing what we might be able to do with particular facilities, and then [we have to consider] the importance of strong partnerships with cities.” The county is in the process of developing a framework for a new regional homelessness authority in which suburban cities like Kent will have outsize influence over policy while contributing nothing financially to the new agency.
After a patient left the Kent isolation and quarantine facility without medical authorization and boarded a Metro bus, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said her “nightmare” had come true. (The patient’s test results were negative.) Ralph opposed locating the isolation/quarantine site from the moment it was announced, telling the Seattle Times, saying that COVID-19 might be used as “a pretext for the siting of a longer term homelessness or quarantine facility in Kent.” The city tried, and failed, to get a restraining order preventing the county from using the motel as an isolation site.
The county’s latest point-in-time count, conducted in January but just released yesterday, found 11,751 people experiencing homelessness in King County. The report noted that this probably represents an undercount of unsheltered people because it was unusually rainy on the night of the county, so it was harder to count people sleeping in vehicles or find those who had taken refuge in abandoned buildings. The number of unsheltered people counted in Southwest King County, which includes Kent, was 1,115—a 3 percent increase over last year’s count.
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