By Erica C. Barnett
King County Executive Dow Constantine announced on Friday that in response to “community feedback,” the county will abandon plans to provide new shelter beds and a sobering center on vacant land next to the existing 270-bed Salvation Army shelter in SoDo. In a statement, Constantine said, “It is clear that building trust and resolving underlying concerns about the conditions in the community today will take considerable time before we can move forward with any added service capacity.”
Residents of the Chinatown International District have held protests outside the shelter and during King County Council meetings objecting to the shelter expansion, which many described during county and city public comment sessions as another example of “dumping” services for homeless people in a neighborhood that was hard-hit by the pandemic and has seen an increase in both crime and gentrification over the past few years.
Tanya Woo, a Chinatown-International District business owner who has helped organize opposition to the shelter expansion, told PublICola before today’s announcement that she wanted the county to put its plans on “pause” and have more conversations with neighborhood residents, including discussions about potential shelter locations in other parts of the city.
“It doesn’t matter what side the community is on this shelter issue, the most important thing is having our voices heard,” Woo said. “My one wish is that the county and city can come to a conclusion that may include looking at other sites and looking at a more equitable distribution of shelter resources so that it’s not all concentrated in one area.”
In addition to community members, paid outside advocates have involved themselves in the debate, including the King County Republican Party (which paid for and handed out “Down With Dow” signs to tweak the county executive, who has a history of being rattled by vocal criticism) and the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that launched the career of far-right activist Chris Rufo.
Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, DCHS director Leo Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.
Reporters received tours of the existing shelter, and the areas where the shelter would have been expanded, earlier this month. In total, the expansion would have added 90 new shelter beds: 40 beds at a new high-acuity shelter, focused on bringing people with the greatest health needs (and visible impact on the surrounding neighborhood) off the street, plus 50 new tiny house-style Pallet shelters. In addition, the county would have moved the existing sobering center, currently housed in the Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, to the complex, adding up to 60 non-shelter beds.
The high-acuity shelter has been a longtime priority for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is an independent entity funded jointly by the city of Seattle and King County. A spokeswoman for the KCRHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this latest setback for the shelter.
The director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), Leo Flor, said last month that the new shelter would help get many people off the street who are unable to access traditional shelter like the Salvation Army’s SoDo shelter because of serious physical and behavioral health needs—the kind of needs that often lead to disruptive behavior and neighborhood complaints.
Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.
Constantine’s office did not provide any information about whether the county is planning to revisit any of the new services and shelter that were canceled today. The decision will save the county some money, though it’s unclear how much; a planned lease with the property owner, developer Greg Smith of Urban Visions, would have rolled the existing lease for the Salvation Army shelter up in a new six-year contract that would have cost King County $10 million a year.
Nor is it clear when the onsite encampment will be resolved. A spokesman for Constantine directed questions about the encampment to the KCRHA; a spokeswoman for the authority told PubliCola that the site is “within the Partnership for Zero focus area” and will be addressed as part of that work and, presumably, closed down once the homelessness authority moves the people living there into housing or shelter.