Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.


As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.


Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day.

Besides lack of transportation, outreach workers told PublICola people declined to go to community centers because they offered no food, showers, or services of any kind. Many also closed for part of the day, leaving people to fend for themselves until as late as noon. According to Ehrenfeld, Health One case managers heard again and again that people didn’t want to trek to a day center that didn’t offer anything to eat or drink.

If the regional homelessness authority does decide to use Seattle community centers as warming centers in the future, it needs to coordinate with Parks well in advance to ensure that these are welcoming places, not empty rooms

Libraries, which the city encouraged people to use as warming centers on its emergency resources website, were largely closed throughout the weather emergency. Unsheltered people routinely use libraries as places to stay warm and dry during the fall, winter, and spring, because they are among the few indoor public spaces where people are allowed to spend time without making a purchase. As we’ve reported, the library system responded to the weather by saying that it would endanger library workers to open branches when there was snow and ice on the streets, and by pointing out library rules that require a specific mix of staffers to operate libraries during ordinary (non-emergency) conditions.

The Next Time

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority will take over responsibility for sheltering and warming unhoused people during the next winter emergency, with city departments still playing crucial backup roles. One major improvement (and a partial reversion to previous policy) would be to preemptively open all emergency shelters on a 24-hour basis, rather than creating a patchwork of nighttime-only shelters and warming centers that are open at random times and sometimes at a great distance from one another.

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This would require the KCRHA to coordinate shelters in advance, rather than scrambling to respond to the predictable need for shelter and daytime warming sites after an emergency is already underway. It could also require setting aside more money—again, in advance—to fund shelters in locations other than Pioneer Square and Seattle Center, acknowledging the fact that unsheltered people live all over the city and not just downtown.

As it turned out, the city ended up expanding hours and opening shelters outside the central city after the fact, but advance planning, and a commitment to co-locating day and nighttime shelter, would eliminate the need to solve predictable problems in the moment. It would also help address the predictable fact that people did not want to trek across town through snow and ice to community centers with no amenities or services. If the RHA does decide to use Seattle community centers as warming centers in the future, it needs to coordinate with Parks well in advance to ensure that these are welcoming places, not empty rooms.

Finally, the library system should acknowledge (or be required, through legislation, to acknowledge) the fact that, whether library workers “signed up” to serve unhoused people or not, the library has for many years been a place where unhoused people do in fact seek refuge, especially during severe winter storms. Executive department employees volunteered en masse to do work well outside their ordinary job descriptions, such as driving vans and staffing shelters, in exchange for relatively small bonuses ($150 to $250) on top of their regular pay. If the library implemented a similar program, employees would undoubtedly rise to the occasion.

4 thoughts on “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

  1. The response was horrible. It was beyond incompetent. I did 3 overnight shifts plus a 24hr shift on X-mass at the West West Seattle temporary shelter set up at Legion Post 160. It was the community that brought food and resources. King County called us and said they have nothing for us and did nothing to help. None of the 24/7 hotlines for domestic abuse were active and other shelters were sending people in need of medical attention (stab wounds, serious mental issues, etc) to us were we had zero way of addressing them. At one point I heard the ambulances refused to come. I think we topped out at about 10-12 people one night. We got ZERO support. I even heard that some key city or king county people were on vacation back east. It wasn’t until few leaders in the community made some phone calls before they even send a social worker about a week late. At one point I recommended to the person in charge that he just shut the thing down before someone gets hurt. I’m so upset with the lack of leadership in the city and county level. I got a good hard look into the abyss. We truly are on our own and cant rely on any of these Muppets for any real leadership or coordination. Someone should investigate this new “authority” it sounds like a total S-show.

    1. Large public agencies and quasi-public agencies (such as some housing authorities) are full of people who get to keep their jobs no matter how badly they screw them up. I know a few, and some of them are out walking their dogs right now and getting paid for it. Why would they lift a finger if they can get away with doing nothing. You should already know this. Why would you expect any help from these people? This also happens at some corporations which may be similar to public agencies in some ways. Consider that you can jack-off in front of your co-workers at CNN and not get fired (Jeffrey Toobin). Mark my words: KCRHA will turn out to be corrupt and a massive waste of resources. Nobody seems to realize that when you set up another layer of crap, you get more crap. Don’t even worry about whether you believe me or not. Just remember I was the one who told you, in maybe 2-3 years when it finally becomes obvious to everyone else. In the meantime, get ready for all the fake statistics to prove how awesome they are. Steve Willie.

  2. The gosh awful lack of coordination and leadership by, in this instance, the City of Seattle and its various departments was appalling and, in my opinion, unforgivable. This was certainly emblematic of the incompetence of city leadership.

  3. This article points out really good pragmatic reasons why 24hr shelters are the best for our weather emergencies. The only thing that sticks out to me is the ending about the library—wouldn’t having them open as warming/cooling centers run into the same problems that are outlined in the beginning of the article? People don’t want to use day shelters where there’s not enough room for hard to transport possessions (tents, sleeping bags), where there’s no food/access to showers, and where they’ll have to leave at night to try to find a way to the nearest overnight shelter. Opening libraries won’t help, the way the community centers the city opened last week weren’t used.

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