By Erica C. Barnett
With freezing weather and possible snow in the forecast for the coming week, the city will make about 200 emergency beds available for single adults living unsheltered to come inside. The temporary shelters will be at two locations: The Compass Housing Alliance day center at 210 Alaskan Way S (80 beds) and Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall at 301 Mercer St (between 100 and 130 beds). There are currently no plans to open City Hall, which has historically served as severe-weather shelter, or other city locations, such as community centers or the Seattle Municipal Tower.
The emergency shelters will open at 7pm and close at 7am, despite the fact that daytime forecasts call for sub-freezing weather throughout the day from December 26 through the end of the year. A daytime warming center at the Seattle Center Armory building is currently supposed to open at 10am, and the Compass building is open to clients during the day. UPDATE December 24: The city announced that several more warming centers will be open during the day for the duration of the declared winter weather emergency; information and hours are available on the city’s website.
Otherwise, the city is encouraging people living unsheltered to go to public libraries, which are open various hours (and not at all on holidays.)
Families with children who need shelter from the cold should call the King County emergency family shelter intake line at 206-245-1026.
The city’s emergency winter shelter protocols call for emergency shelter to open whenever the forecasted temperature is 25 degrees or less for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulates on the ground, which is known as a “Phase II” winter weather event. A Phase III event—requiring “prolonged emergency response,” potentially including shelters in community centers and other city buildings—is the same as a Phase II event, plus a snow accumulation of six inches or more.
Historically, the city has opened emergency shelters before the city reaches these thresholds, which haven’t been updated for more than 20 years; last year, when PubliCola asked about the 25-degree threshold, HSD told us that changing the criteria (and thus opening emergency shelters in slightly less harsh subfreezing temperatures) would have cost implications. According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the city has two contracts for emergency shelter this year—one with Compass, and one with the Salvation Army. Each is required to offer 15 days of 24-hour shelter per year; we’ve asked HSD for more information about why each agency is only offering shelter for 12 hours a day.
In years past, the city’s temporary emergency shelters have not always filled up despite the cold. The group primarily responsible for going out to encampments and identifying people who are at risk of dying if they stay outside in freezing weather (and transporting them to city-funded shelters) is the HOPE team, a group of Human Services Department employees who offer shelter and services to people living in encampments the city is about to sweep. During a major snowstorm last February, according to Mundt, the team transported a total of 40 people to shelter.
Health One, the Seattle Fire Department team that responds to non-emergency crisis calls, won’t be mobilized until December 27 because of staffing shortages; when they do, according to SFD spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley, their job will be to “reactively and proactively respond to distribute supplies (food, hand warmers, blankets, etc.) and offer transport to severe weather shelters.”
Another change this year, compared to pre-pandemic practice, is that the city is not funding any non-emergency winter shelters—that is, shelters that are routinely open throughout the winter months, not just during emergencies. Mundt said the city stopped opening winter shelters because of “the ongoing de-intensification of the shelter system in response to COVID-19, which put added strain on shelter provider capacity”; he also noted that the city opened about 500 new shelter beds this year, including three new or expanded tiny house villages and a new shelter for single men, which took the place of the temporary winter shelters. (Editor’s note: We’ve updated this post, at HSD’s request, to include the 150 temporary shelter beds at two hotels that will close in January. The two hotel-based shelters—King’s Inn and the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown—are winding down operations and not accepting any new guests.)
However, the new year-round shelter beds are not a ready substitute for shelter designed specifically to keep people warm and alive through the winter, because most of those beds are already full; when beds do become available, they’re only accessible through specific channels, like referrals from the HOPE team or through case conferencing, a process by which homeless service providers make the case for specific clients. Winter shelter, in contrast, is a temporary measure to ensure that people are safe and warm for periods longer than the duration of a declared emergency.
Complicating matters this year is the fact that HSD is handing over all its homeless service contracts to the new King County Regional Authority at the end of the year, including the contracts for emergency winter shelters. A spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management said the office would take a leading role directing shelter efforts this year while the regional authority ramps up.
If it turns out that two nighttime shelters aren’t enough to meet demand, the city could decide to open up community centers, City Hall, or other city buildings; however, because HSD and the RHA are mid-transition, neither agency has enough staff to “loan” a significant number of people to staff those shelters, as HSD has in the past. A spokeswoman for the Parks Department, which runs the community centers, said the department might provide “building support” but would rely on the nonprofit shelter providers, which are also short-staffed, to provide personnel at shelter sites.
Meanwhile, the city has not halted plans to sweep an encampment in Lake City that has been slated for removal for weeks; barring a weather-related delay, that encampment will be swept next Wednesday, December 29.