Winter Shelters Must Be Accessible, Not Just Open

By Erica C. Barnett

The first major cold snap of the winter offered a preview of how the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will respond when the temperature dips to dangerous levels, and an illustration of how a fractured homelessness response system still leaves unsheltered people out in the cold.

First, some very good news: KCRHA is using a completely new set of standards for deciding when to open emergency shelters in cold weather, abandoning the city of Seattle’s old standard for one that more accurately reflects the kind of weather conditions that put homeless people’s lives at risk. (This is the first full winter in which KCRHA will be in charge of emergency shelter; last year’s winter response was a chaotic combination of city and KCRHA oversight).

Under the previous standard, the city was only required to open at least one emergency shelter (a “Tier 2” response) when forecasted temperatures were 25 degrees or lower for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulated on the ground. Under the new standards, KCRHA will open at least one shelter, and provide emergency funding to homeless service providers for survival gear, any time the forecasted high temperature is 40 degrees or less for three consecutive days, the daily low temperature is 35 or less for three consecutive days, or there is more than two inches of snow or rain on the ground.

Fixing the region’s cold-weather shelter response will require an acknowledgement from KCRHA and the city that one of the primary reasons people don’t go to shelter is that shelter is unavailable and inaccessible to people living unsheltered in most areas of the city.

KCRHA has similarly adjusted the next activation level, Tier 3, to reflect the less-harsh but still dangerous weather conditions typical to longer periods of cold and snow in Seattle. In a Tier 3 activation, the county and city coordinate to open more shelters and daytime warming centers, and work to coordinate storage of belongings and transportation to shelter for people who can’t get there by bus. The city’s old standard required a snow accumulation of 6 inches or more, in addition to multiple days of 25-degree temperatures, to trigger a Tier 3 response; the new rules lower that standard to 30 degrees or less for a single day, or snow or rain accumulation of more than four inches.

According to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, between 20 and 40 people have used the city’s cold-weather shelter, at Compass Center in Pioneer Square, every night since Compass opened up extra capacity. That’s more people than typically show up in a Tier 2 (lower-level) winter emergency —an indication that “outreach is working,” Martens said—but it still represents a tiny fraction of the thousands of people sleeping outside in King County.

And therein lies some less-great news: Because the region’s official emergency winter response consists primarily of opening shelters in the downtown Seattle area, a majority of the city’s homeless population will inevitably be unable to access those shelters. This is still true with a more extensive Tier 3 response, which last year included more shelters downtown, two shelters in Lake City, and a tiny West Seattle shelter whose operator did not agree to be included on the city’s map and was overwhelmed by the influx of people seeking shelter.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department said that the city’s HOPE Team, which does outreach at encampments, is providing information about the Compass shelter along with cold-weather supplies such as gloves and hand warmers, but said HSD has not gotten any requests for help with transportation. Last year, the city handed out bus tickets that were largely useless because many routes had shut down due to icy conditions, and offered vouchers for Lyft rides, which were similarly underutilized. The city also provided a handful of vans to pick people up and take them to shelters, but that effort was stymied by a lack of commercially licensed drivers and icy conditions.

Fixing the region’s cold-weather shelter response will require better coordination between agencies (looking at you, Seattle Public Library) but it will also require an acknowledgement from KCRHA and the city that one of the primary reasons people don’t go to shelter is that shelter is unavailable and inaccessible to people living unsheltered in most areas of the city. Telling homeless people to get on the bus and go downtown has never been an effective way to provide access to emergency shelter, and the worse conditions are, the less viable this approach becomes. An effective emergency shelter response requires shelters people can access, not just shelters that are open.