Category: King County

Kent Motel Meant for Isolation and Quarantine Sits Empty As Homeless Numbers Rise

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.

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

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In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”

City Expands Access to Downtown Hotel, Adding About Five Previously Ineligible Guests and Raising Questions About Eligibility

Back in March, the city of Seattle rented out every room at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle for three months at a cost of around $3 million. (The total cost will be higher if more people actually stay there, which is why the city’s original figures were higher.) Initially, the hotel’s 155 rooms were reserved for first responders such as police and firefighters responding to the COVID crisis; when only a handful of first responders ended up using the rooms, the city opened 100 of them up to nurses and other medical personnel, which increased the total number of people who had stayed at the hotel to 17 by April 18. Those 17 people stayed at the hotel an average of nine days, according to the city, for a total of about 153 room nights over the first three weeks the hotel was in use—the equivalent of one night with a completely full hotel.

“If any of our members call and say, ‘I need a hotel tonight,’ or this week, or whatever, we check and verify their membership and then route them to either Seattle or Bellevue,” where King County has reserved rooms in another hotel. —Amy Clark, Communications Director, SEIU 1199NW

As of last week, according the city, the hotel had taken on an additional 35 guests—most of them health care workers—for a total of 52 guests in the first seven weeks of operation. According to the city, these 52 people stayed an average of 10 nights, for a total of 520 room nights over seven weeks—a period when the city actually paid for nearly 7,600 room nights.

Homeless advocates, including the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, have urged the city to allow direct service workers, such as people working at shelters, to access some of the rooms that are sitting empty. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office says that the city has since “made the Executive Pacific Hotel available to shelter service providers,” by “working with SEIU 1199NW and other union partners.

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SEIU Healthcare 1199NW represents workers at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and SEIU 925 represents education and child care workers. So far, according 1199 communications director Amy Clark, 1199NW has placed “four or five” DESC employees in rooms at the hotel.

Most front-line homeless service workers are not unionized, raising questions about why the city has decided to provide hotel rooms only through the health-care unions instead of allowing service providers with non-unionized workers to ask for them directly—especially with a large hotel fully paid for and sitting mostly empty.

“If any of our members call and say, ‘I need a hotel tonight,’ or this week, or whatever, we check and verify their membership and then route them to either Seattle or Bellevue,” Clark says. King County has reserved a block of 80 rooms for health care workers at a 176-room hotel in Bellevue for 12 weeks, for which they are paying $89 a night—less than half of what the city is paying per room at the Executive Pacific, and (at around $600,000 total) about one-fifth of what the city has committed to spend on the Seattle hotel over an equivalent period.

Most front-line homeless service workers are not unionized, raising questions about why the city has decided to provide hotel rooms only through the health-care unions instead of allowing service providers with non-unionized workers to ask for them directly—especially with a large hotel fully paid for and sitting mostly empty.

Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the King County Coalition on Homelessness, says the city seems to be needlessly excluding essential workers from hotel rooms it has paid for. “It can only be a matter of race, class, and bureaucratic insensitivity or incompetence that explains why public dollars are being used to pay for empty rooms when [human service providers] need to use them” and are unable to access them easily.

King County’s process for routing people to its Bellevue hotel rooms does not require unions to coordinate or approve stays. Instead, service providers designate a person to submit requests for hotel rooms, and that person emails a single person at the county when one of their employees (unionized or not) needs a room.

As County Opens More Non-Congregate Shelter to Prevent Spread of COVID, City Plans to Remove Two More Encampments

Nearly two years after King County first announced that it planned to open a modular shelter for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property in Interbay, the

project is almost ready to open for a new purpose: Providing non-congregate shelter for between 45 and 50 homeless men over 55 from the St. Martin de Porres shelter, run by Catholic Community Services. The modular buildings, which are essentially trailers with windows, fans, and high-walled cubicles to provide privacy and protection from disease transmission between the four men who will share each unit, were originally supposed to be dorm-style shelters housing up to eight people on beds or cots.

The project, which will include eight individual showers, 10 single-stall restrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, and a community room with a meal delivery area, cost $7 million, up from a 2018 projection of $4.5 million. Operating the site will cost around $2 million a year.

“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus”—King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County has focused much of its response to homelessness during the COVID emergency on moving people out of mass shelters—where, County Executive Dow Constantine pointed out Thursday, “we’re likely to have runaway infections before you know it”—and into individual hotel and motel rooms or other non-congregate temporary housing.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID emergency unless they can offer each person “individual housing,” not space in congregate shelter, to prevent the virus from spreading. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the federal guidance says.

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“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus,” Constantine said. “We continue to test [people living in] relocated shelters who are in hotels and would be in facilities like this, and we are finding very little if any transmission of the disease.” At the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is serving as temporary housing for people who had been staying in the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s main shelter in downtown Seattle, 177 people have been tested for COVID-19; zero have tested positive.

The city has focused its response to homelessness on adding more congregate shelter spaces so that people living in mass shelters can sleep further apart, and on providing referrals to shelter for people at the encampments it removes, which the city says are limited to those that cause a public health or public safety risk. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan took issue with the notion that the city and county had adopted different approaches. “There is no ‘or’ here,” she said. “We are taking every approach we can and adding significant additional financial resources from the city to make sure that we are bringing as many people inside as we can.”

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” —Centers for Disease Control

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers, has removed at least two large encampments in recent weeks—one outside the Navigation Center shelter in the International District and one at the Ballard Commons park. In both cases, the city said the encampments posed a public safety and health risk, because people were congregating in violation of state and city orders. In the case of the Commons, the city said that a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 17 homeless people in the Ballard area endangered the safety of people living in and around the park.

“The CDC guidance made very clear that our number one priority would be outreach to people experiencing homelessness, to provide them hygiene, to provide them information, and to try to bring them inside,” Durkan said. “But if there are areas where there is a public safety or public health [issue], we will try to mitigate against that threat.”

The city has said that there were beds in enhanced shelters (24/7 shelters with amenities such as case management and the ability to stay with partners or pets) available for every person living at the Commons, although the city’s official count of 40 residents is significantly lower than estimates provided by both people living at the site and by homeless service providers at the Bridge Care Center across the street. “Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside,” Durkan said.

“Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside.” —Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan 

Next week, the Seattle Human Services Department’s Navigation Team will remove two separate encampments in the International District. On two recent visits to both sites, I counted a total of at least 80 tents, the vast majority of them on South Weller Street between 12th Ave. S. and S. Dearborn St. Durkan did not respond directly to a question about whether the city had sufficient enhanced shelter beds for 80 people. “We will continue to do our best, and we will make offers to everybody who we try to relocate. We want to put compassion first but it has to work with the policy of public safety and public health in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

The Public Defender Association has offered to place people displaced when the city removes encampments in hotel rooms through its new Co-LEAD program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by providing case management and temporary non-congregate housing during the COVID crisis. The city did not take them up on their offer, although Durkan has signed off on the program in principle and name-checked it during Thursday’s press conference. Given that the International District encampments are scheduled for removal starting next Tuesday, it appears unlikely at this point that the people living in these encampments will be candidates for Co-LEAD either.

Using Private Funding, King County Provides Alcohol and Cigarettes to Patients at Isolation Sites

Beer, Mug, Refreshment, Beer Mug, Drink, Bavaria
Image via Pixabay.

King County has been providing alcohol, tobacco, and, until two weeks ago, cannabis products to some patients with diagnosed or potential COVID-19 infections who are staying at the county’s isolation/quarantine and assessment/recovery sites, The C is for Crank has learned. These sites serve people who are homeless or who cannot isolate safely at home.

The program, which is not funded through public dollars, is similar to efforts in other cities, including San Francisco, to enable patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus to remain isolated safely while mitigating or preventing withdrawal symptoms.

“Limited and controlled quantities of alcohol and nicotine have been provided by the health and behavioral health clinicians on site as part of clinical management of withdrawal symptoms and harm reduction practices to support patients to safely stay in isolation,” Department of Human and Community Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says. “In all cases, this clinical review and approval for a requested item is required.”

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While programs like King County’s have been controversial in other cities, they are based in the principles of harm reduction, a set of strategies at reducing the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use. Other examples of harm reduction include methadone clinics, needle exchanges, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake project—not to mention things like nicotine gum and marijuana as an alternative to heroin.

Hamilton did not say how many people had received alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis products, but said that the department’s director, Leo Flor, has been paying for these items out of his own pocket while the county secures “private foundation funding as a more sustainable approach to funding moving forward.” It’s illegal to spend public funds on alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. Hamilton was not able to immediately provide details about how much these “initial harm reduction supplies” had cost.

Providing people with substances they would otherwise seek out makes it easier to keep people from spreading COVID-19 in the community surrounding the county’s quarantine and isolation sites, and makes it more likely that people will stay at those sites for their entire isolation period instead of leaving against medical advice. In the case of alcohol, it also may be saving lives—for heavy, daily drinkers, withdrawing from alcohol without specialized medical intervention can cause seizures, heart failure, and death.

“For those who cannot do so, or who do not have a home, the County has created isolation and recovery sites,” Hamilton said. “We try to keep guests safe, stable and comfortable so they will stay the entire time, and harm reduction is one strategy that helps to achieve that goal for some of our guests.”

I have asked for more details about funding for this program, including how much DCHS director Flor has spent out of his own pocket, and will update this post when I learn more.

County Empties Mass Shelters, Moves Clients Into Hotels, As COVID Continues to Spread in Congregate Settings

Image via Inn At Queen Anne.

Catholic Community Services, whose mass shelters have been hit hard by the COVID-19 virus, is moving at least 40, and up to 60 residents from a large congregate shelter at the King County Airport into a Lower Queen Anne hotel, the Inn at Queen Anne, the C Is for Crank has learned. King County opened the airport shelter in an effort to “de-intensify” the crowded St. Martin de Porres shelter in SoDo after a COVID outbreak at that shelter.

The city of Seattle and, to a lesser extent, the county have focused on redistributing people who are staying in shelters into larger spaces where they can sleep further apart, rather than moving them into hotels or other locations where they can self-isolate. The St. Martin de Porres shelter was among the first to experience an outbreak of the virus, and the men who stayed there—most of them considered “vulnerable” because of age or underlying health conditions—were among the first shelter clients moved to a new, more spacious location.

“We all wish that the response had moved faster, and at the same time, we’re happy that it’s moving as fast as it has,” Flo Beaumon, associate director of CCS, says. “I think King County has really jumped right in to move very quickly and to put the resources together to make this happen.”

The county confirms that it will also move about 60 people from two mass Salvation Army shelters, located at the King County Administration Building and the county-owned Fourth and Jefferson Building, to the Civic Hotel, also in Lower Queen Anne. The county’s Department of Community and Human Services did not immediately have a cost estimate for the hotel rooms, which are expected to be funded, in part, with federal FEMA dollars.

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In March, the CDC recommended moving shelters into larger spaces so that people can sleep at least six feet apart. However, it has since become clear that congregate shelters allow the COVID-19 virus to proliferate, because residents still share the same air, restrooms, and common areas. Dozens of people staying or working in congregate shelters have been infected, according to the county Experts and advocates across the country have been pushing to move homeless shelter clients into hotels so that they can follow the same shelter-in-place guideline that are recommended for people with housing.

“Everybody tells you to isolate, and can’t isolate” in a homeless shelter, Beaumon says. “And you don’t know who’s sick. It’s easy to try to step away from a person who’s coughing, but somebody next to you could have the virus and you don’t know it.”

In addition to the immediate benefits of having a room with a door that locks, a bed, and a shower, Beaumon says the psychological benefits of housing are enormous. “Many of [the shelter guests] have suffered homelessness for a long time. Tensions go down because you’re not sharing space in close quarters with other people. And on top of that, people are going to be healthier and expecting that they will survive this epidemic.”

The city of Seattle has provided staffing and sites for several “redistribution” shelters at community centers around the city. When city council member Teresa Mosqueda asked staffers for the City Budget Office about moving some of the people at these mass shelters to hotels earlier this week, a staffer responded that the city was still focused on “de-densifying” existing shelters and “providing new shelter opportunities” for people who were living outside.

County Rents Hygiene Trailers for a Fraction of What the City Is Paying

Hygiene trailers at King County’s COVID assessment and recovery site in Shoreline.

King County, which has opened isolation, assessment, and recovery sites in several locations in and outside Seattle, will pay a fraction of what the city of Seattle is paying to provide mobile toilet and shower trailers to people staying at these locations, The C Is for Crank has learned.

Between March and April, the county is spending, on average, $60,000 a week on to provide 36 shower stalls at three locations, including staffing, maintenance, cleaning, supplies, and other costs, while the city will spend as much as $43,000 a week plus staffing, security, maintenance, cleaning, supplies and other costs, to provide six shower stalls at two locations. 

As I’ve reported, the city council added $1.3 million to the city budget last November to purchase five shower and hygiene trailers, but the city’s Human Services Department did not begin trying to procure them until mid-March, after the COVID-19 epidemic forced the closure of private businesses and public buildings with restrooms and showers. By that time, according to the city, there were no shower trailers available locally, and the original plan to buy trailers rather than rent them had to be scrapped.

Between March and April, the county is spending, on average, $60,000 a week on to provide 36 shower stalls at three locations, including staffing, maintenance, cleaning, and other costs, while the city will spend as much as $43,000 a week plus staffing, maintenance, cleaning, and other costs to provide six shower stalls at two locations. 

The city eventually found two trailers available for rent from a company in California, at a cost of $36,000 per month, plus $14,000 in hauling costs, between $5,700 and $34,200 a week to pump out wastewater, an unknown amount for supplies, and a “significant” but unknown amount to hire additional staff to provide security, cleaning, and maintenance. The city is currently paying a private contractor $90 an hour for each of the guards who patrol its homeless shelters at community centers, so it’s likely that even if maintenance, cleaning, and direct-service staff receive minimum wage, the additional staffing costs will add thousands more to the weekly cost of each site.

None of the six city-funded shower stalls are technically ADA-compliant. A spokesman for the city said that one shower at each location will accommodate people who “need a larger stall.”

Again, these are rough estimates—the city did not provide any information about how much it will cost to staff, patrol, maintain, clean, and supply the trailers, so none of this information is exact—but the costs are sure to be substantial, and substantially more than what the county is paying.

Now let’s look at the county’s numbers, which are more inclusive of all costs and therefore more exact. According to a spokesman for the King County Department of Executive Services, King County has paid three companies a total of $270,000, over a period of about one month, to provide 20 hygiene trailers, including 36 showers, six of which are fully ADA-compliant.

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Like the city’s, these are rental units, and (also like the city’s) they are not all up and running yet, but the cost, according to the county, includes supplies, maintenance, cleaning, and pump-out services. Because the showers are at existing facilities, they don’t come with extra security (security costs are rolled in to the cost of the larger sites), but otherwise, the trailers are comparable to those provided by the city.

To break it down in a bit more detail, here is what the county has gotten for its $270,000:

Seven trailers at an assessment and recovery site in Shoreline, including 17 showers, one of them ADA-compliant. (Effective date: March 13)

Nine trailers at an assessment and recovery site in Eastgate, including 17 showers, one of them ADA-compliant. (Effective dates: March 20 and April 2)

Two trailers at a not-yet-opened assessment and recovery site in SoDo, including 2 ADA-compliant showers, with more likely to come when the site gets up and running, according to the county. (Effective date: March 27).

Assessment and recovery sites are for people who have COVID-19 and do not require hospitalization, but do not have the ability to shelter in place at home. This includes people experiencing homelessness as well as anyone who can’t go home safely because, for example, they live with someone who is immunocompromised or in another vulnerable category.

The county has declined to speculate on why they are paying so much less for hygiene trailers than the city, but one reason could be that the companies they are using—Snohomish-based OK’s Cascade and Seattle-based United Site Services—are local. The company the city is using, VIP Restrooms, is based in California.

COVID Cases in Homeless Facilities Are Mostly Happening In Mass Shelters, Not Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square. DESC has reported five COVID-19 cases among residents or staff, three of them in congregate shelters such as this one.

On Monday, King County Public Health announced that 112 people experiencing homelessness and staff at facilities serving homeless King County residents had tested positive for COVID-19—a number that could underrepresent the number of COVID-positive people living in mass shelters, since not everyone is being tested. According to Public Health spokesman Keith Seinfeld, between 1,400 and 1,500 people “associated with homeless shelters” have been tested, including both shelter guests and staff. For comparison, King County’s total homeless population is more than 12,500. COVID-19 tallies rely on self-reporting by shelters, some of which have been reluctant to provide accurate information about how many people staying in their shelters have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past.

A closer look at the detailed numbers, which King County Public Health provided in response to a request, reveals that roughly 70 of the 91 “assigned” cases (that is, cases that are tied to a specific service or facility) occurred among clients of large mass shelters, in which dozens or hundreds of people sleep together in one room and share restrooms and common spaces, not to mention air.

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Twenty cases, out of 91 cases the county has linked to specific sites, were reported at Catholic Community Services’ overflow shelter at the King County Airport, and another 21 occurred at the Lazarus Day Center, also run by CCS. Overall, CCS’s shelters, accounted for 50 of the 91 cases tied to specific facilities. The county did not identify which cases were shelter guests and which were staff, but a recent Centers for Disease Control review of three Seattle shelters with “clusters” of COVID-19 had an equal proportion of cases among shelter residents and staff, although the total number of residents with the virus was higher.

The city of Seattle has responded to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness largely by moving people from existing shelters into larger spaces, like the Miller and Garfield Community Centers, where they can sleep six feet apart. (The mayor’s office has consistently referred to these expansion sites as “new” shelter beds, but they are not.) Two additional “redistribution” shelters, at the Loyal Heights Community Center and the Southwest Teen Life Center, were expected to open in late March but are no longer scheduled to open; according to an HSD spokesman, service providers “haven’t asked us to use them.” 

“If I wouldn’t put my [92-year-old] mother there, or my brother, or my 23-year-old daughter, then it’s just not okay.” — Dr. Colette Auerswald, UC Berkeley

HSD staffers who have been working at shelters are reportedly being redeployed to other work assignments that are also related to COVID response. I’ve reached out to the city for more details about why this is happening, but the result may be shelters staffed by Parks and Recreation department staff and patrolled by private security, in addition to staff from the organizations that run the shelters.

The CDC issued guidance back in March suggesting that shelters try to keep people’s heads at least six feet apart while they sleep, by having them sleep six feet apart and head to toe if necessary. “The six-foot guideline seemed like a good idea at the time,” Dr. Colette Auerswald. from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, said during a call with reporters today, but in the month since that guidance was released it has become obvious that mass shelters are unsafe. Nonetheless, the six-foot spacing guidance remains an official CDC recommendation as of today.

“If I wouldn’t put my [92-year-old] mother there, or my brother, or my 23-year-old daughter, then it’s just not okay” for homeless people either, Auerswald continued. “People need to get out of congregate shelters.” Auerswald is the lead author of a new report recommending that local jurisdictions provide people experiencing homelessness with hotel rooms or other places to shelter in place for the duration of the crisis.