Tag: homeless shelters

In Reversal, City and County Will Open Smoke Shelter in SoDo

Image by Matt Howard via Upsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

In a reversal of their previous policy, the city of Seattle and King County now plan to open one temporary shelter for people living outdoors to escape from a “super massive” plume of wildfire smoke expected to roll in starting Friday, The C Is for Crank has learned. The shelter will be at a large warehouse in SoDo and will provide protection for up to 77 people.

UPDATE: Officials from the county and city officially announced the shelter this morning. “The building is large enough to create substantial physical distancing inside,” county executive Dow Constantine said. In fact, the building is so large that it could hold up to 300 people. The shelter, which will be open until at least Monday, will be operated by the Salvation Army with assistance from the county’s public health reserve corps.

According to the latest Point In Time count of the county’s homeless population, there were at least 5,500 people living unsheltered in King County last January.

Earlier this week, a spokeswoman from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said that the city, following guidance from Seattle/King County Public Health, did not plan at that time to open any new indoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness in response to unhealthy air conditions because the risk of COVID-19 transmission in congregate settings outweighed the health risks posed by prolonged smoke exposure. The spokeswoman, Kamaria Hightower, said that “should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast,” the city has “access to a range of facilities.”

The city has not opened cooling centers this summer, arguing that the risk of COVID transmission outweighed the risk from high temperatures. Although advocates—and several city council members—have sought to move homeless people into hotel and motel rooms for the duration of the epidemic, the mayor has resisted such proposals. The city has contributed funding for a hotel in Renton that is being used as a long-term shelter through a contract with the county. On Friday, Durkan said the city was considering all options, but that hotels presented special challenges, such as the need to provide staffing for people in individual rooms.

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The city and county have been cautious about opening smoke shelters. As recently as Thursday morning, King County Public Health spokesman Doug Williams said the county would not recommend opening new emergency shelters specifically to provide protection from wildfire smoke. “The spaces that exist in Seattle with proper air ventilation/filtration”—five sites outfitted last year specifically to serve as smoke shelters— “are currently being used as distancing shelters for the homeless population,” Williams said.

This is only partly true—two of five such spaces, Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall (both at Seattle Center) are being used for this purpose. One, the Seattle Center Armory, is partly open for business and is not serving as shelter, and the two remaining sites, Rainier Beach Community Center and the International District/Chinatown Community Center, are not being used as shelter. And the county and city have not previously disclosed their ongoing work to develop the SoDo site as emergency shelter.

At Friday’s press conference, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson said the city had discussed opening the Armory as a smoke shelter but that Seattle Center did “not have the staffing level to open that facility to a large number of individuals, nor did the provider comm unity have the capacity to help staff that facility.”

“The CDC has issued guidance against congregate cooling centers because of the increased risk of COVID transmission,” Williams continued. The CDC recommends that congregate cooling shelters include information about preventing COVID transmission, and that they include proper social distancing and as much air filtration as practical. Although the recommendation does note that congregate settings can increase the risk of COVID transmission, it consists mostly of advice for how to open congregate cooling centers as safely as possible, and is not blanket recommendation against providing temporary shelter from dangerous weather conditions. 

Amanda Richer, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness who was homeless until fairly recently herself, said Thursday that she contacted the city’s Human Services Department a month ago about the need to prepare for wildfires and hot weather in addition to the COVID crisis. She said she was glad that the city and county were taking action to help some people experiencing homelessness escape the smoke. But, she added, “I don’t know where the disconnect in foresight is happening. It’s an emergency that should have been dealt with when it started being an emergency.”

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke inhalation can damage lungs and make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as COVID; it can also increase the risk of heart problems, cause asthma attacks, and other health problems. This is especially true of groups that have preexisting health conditions, which are common among unsheltered people, particularly those who are chronically homeless.

“This smoke will damage these unhoused [people’s] lungs so badly that it will make them so much more vulnerable to COVID,” Richer said. “I don’t know if we are as a city being honest about the level of need and what is happening. … If all of our smoke shelters are being used, then we need to know where else to put people, because we can’t let people die.”

I asked the city and county officials at the press conference why, if the advice for housed people is to stay indoors even though most people lack high-tech air filtration systems, the city and county aren’t opening temporary spaces so that more people experiencing homelessness can at least get out of the smoke. Durkan responded, “We have around 5,000 people living outdoors in the region. …  I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that we have a plan to bring 5,000 people in immediately for the next few days.” (I wasn’t.) “We don’t logistically currently have that ability, but we are trying to reach those people that are most vulnerable [and] to open up these facilities that are very large to get the people who are most vulnerable inside.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for King County, said that if the air continues to worsen, the county will reassess and could recommend opening additional buildings. “We’re trying to balance two situations which are fraught with uncertainty [COVID-19 and wildfire smoke], but as the air quality decreases, the motivation to bring people indoors and the need to do that will increase.”

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.

As COVID Cases Surge, How Will Shelters Cope? Plus More on that Mystery Campaign and Details on Seattle Magazine Sale

 

Sale price: $2 million. Paying freelancers: Not included

1. As of last night, a motel in Kent and four isolation sites scattered throughout King County remained empty of COVID-19 patients, according to King County Public Health. Meanwhile, the city has confirmed that—beyond the 100 new spaces for Downtown Emergency Service Center clients that just opened at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall—they have not yet identified new shelter sites to allow for social distancing among the thousands of people living in emergency shelter in conditions that do not allow six feet of spacing between cots, bunks, or mats.

A rough calculation based on last year’s point-in-time count (which does not include a detailed geographic breakdown of people in emergency shelter and other types of “sheltered” homelessness) suggests that around 2,800 people were staying in emergency shelter on a typical night, a number that may be inflated by the way the Homeless Management Information System counts people entering shelters. Whatever the true number is, it is certainly many times higher than 100.

Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, says the city, King County, and the state are “evaluating multiple avenues for bringing additional resources online and we will have new information to share in the coming days. At this time, there are no known confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the unsheltered community or within shelters. However, we are working closely with the County to ensure there are adequate resources and the right strategies in place to meet this public health need when it arises.”

The mayor will be at a press conference tomorrow along with Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and other regional officials, and I’ll be posting live updates on Twitter.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. Stuck inside, with no council meetings to attend and no other immediately pressing business, I decided yesterday to continue down a rabbit hole I entered last week when I started looking into Seattle for a Healthy Planet, a mysterious campaign that may or may not be planning to put an initiative on the Seattle ballot to create a new tax to fund research into lab-grown meat.

As I reported last week, the campaign has already reported more than $365,000 in contributions, most of that from a California-based cryptocurrency firm called Alameda Research with links to animal-rights groups. Alameda did not return my messages seeking comment; nor did the company’s founder, a Hong Kong-based 20-something named Sam Bankman-Fried.

I explained that I was calling about Seattle for a Healthy Planet, and he told me his name was included on campaign documents because of “a mistake by our filing people,” promised to have someone get back to me, and hung up.

Undaunted, I turned to the other side of the campaign ledger, zeroing in on a consulting firm called The Hicks Group that was paid a flat $15,000 for one week of unspecified work between Christmas and New Year’s, and another $15,000 for the month of January. The headquarters for the Hicks Group appears to be a Brooklyn apartment that was recently occupied by Seattle for a Healthy Planet campaign manager David Huynh, a former Hillary for America staffer in the campaign’s New York office who now lives in Baltimore. (Huynh was one of the people who did not call or email me back). Huynh’s old apartment is now occupied by one of his former H4A coworkers, Jeremy Jansen, whose own consulting firm is registered in Wisconsin and is not called The Hicks Group.

Most consulting firms (including Jansen’s) are registered with a state licensing body, and are typically organized as LLCs. The Hicks Group is not a registered business in New York, and I could find no evidence for its existence prior to the Seattle for a Healthy Planet campaign. Continue reading “As COVID Cases Surge, How Will Shelters Cope? Plus More on that Mystery Campaign and Details on Seattle Magazine Sale”

Morning Crank: To Reduce the Door-to-Door Burden of People Already in Crisis

Yesterday, after city council member Kshama Sawant announced that her committee would hold a special public hearing to readjudicate the cuts to women’s overnight shelters and hygiene centers that the council made last year, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post enumerating all the hygiene services (showers, laundry facilities, and restrooms) that will be available in the 21 “enhanced shelters” it plans to fund this year.  “Enhanced shelters provide more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to reduce the door-to-door burden for people already in crisis to meet their basic needs like eating breakfast, taking a shower, doing laundry, and sleeping,” the post says. (What HSD fails to mention: The services available at those shelters probably won’t be available to people who aren’t clients at those shelters—as of last year, council members would only say that they hoped some of the shelters would choose to make their facilities available to non-clients on a drop-in basis).

The post even goes on the defensive about the well-documented lack of (legal) places for people living outdoors to relieve themselves, noting that the city “supports 117 restrooms available to all members of the public,” including Port-a-Potties near five transit stops and restrooms at libraries, community centers and parks. Parks close later than community centers, but they do close; meanwhile, the city is currently embroiled in a massive debate about encampments, one aspect of which is whether people who attempt to sleep in parks overnight should be removed.

The city budget adopted last year hews to the principles of “Pathways Home,” a human services and homelessness funding framework that deprioritizes projects that don’t focus specifically on getting people into permanent housing. As a result, the budget  eliminated or reduced funding for three downtown hygiene centers, which “only” provide places for people to clean up and use the restroom. One of those three, the Women’s Referral Center, is on the agenda for Sawant’s public hearing next Monday, along with the SHARE/WHEEL-run women’s shelter for which Sawant also wants to restore funding. (SHARE runs a bare-bones men’s shelter; its sister organization, WHEEL, runs a similar shelter for women. Both had their funding cut last year.).

It seems unlikely that Sawant’s time-tested tactic of holding a public hearing and organizing her supporters to show up to testify in favor of her proposal will restore long-term funding to either WHEEL or the Catholic Community Services-run Women’s Referral Center, but Sawant is taking every opportunity to draw attention to the issue. At a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday, Sawant argued that the roughly $100,000 the city plans to spend on a fence to keep homeless people from erecting tents under the Ballard Bridge “could be enough to extend bare-bones bridge funding for the [SHARE and WHEEL] shelters for the rest of the year.” Funding for both WHEEL’s and SHARE’s shelters is set to run out in June.

Currently, the fence in Ballard is just a temporary structure—a crude construction fence, topped by razor wire, intended to keep homeless people from taking shelter under the bridge. On Tuesday, as I called around trying to get an answer to the question, “Who decided it was necessary to build a $100,000 fence under the Ballard Bridge?”, it became clear that the fence, like the infamous row of bike racks meant to deter homeless people in Belltown, was a political hot potato no one wanted to handle—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office directed questions about the fence and the bike racks to the department of Finance and Administrative Services and the Seattle Department of Transportation, which each deflected responsibility on the other agency. (SDOT put up the fence; the question is whether FAS or its director, Fred Podesta, ordered them to do so back when the city’s Emergency Operations Center was holding daily work group meetings to respond to the city’s homelessness state of emergency*). Both departments agree that the fence is necessary, however, because of the risk that homeless campers will accidentally set the bridge on fire, causing a collapse. Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes Ballard, says he considers the fence “particularly problematic,” because “it doesn’t solve anything—I drove by there a few nights ago [before the fence was up] and there were five tents there. I’m almost certain those folks are not housed. Probably they were just destabilized. So now we’re $100,000 poorer and no one’s better off. What is our long-term strategy here? Is our ultimate goal to fence off every structure in the city because someone might use that structure as a place to live?”

A similar story is playing out around the notorious bike racks. SDOT installed those bike racks, too (and highlighted them on Twitter) but earlier this week, the agency sent out a statement saying that the policy of the Durkan administration (and thus SDOT) was not to use bike racks as impediments to encampments. Several council members praised the agency Tuesday for agreeing to remove the racks and reinstall them elsewhere in the city. “I think this is a great sign from our new mayor, from the leadership at SDOT, that … we will not go down the route that other cities have gone, using hostile architecture to displace folks,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said.

But is it? Durkan has said she supports removing the bike racks, but her office did not respond to questions about what her strategy will be for ensuring that people living unsheltered do not set up tents on sidewalks. And it’s unclear whether Durkan’s policy shop, which is still staffing up, has come up with an answer to the question: If not bike racks and fences, then what? Ultimately, the buck will stop not with any particular city department, but with the new mayor—and two months in, she still hasn’t provided a clear indication of how she plans to deal with unauthorized encampments.

* This story originally said that the EOC has “stood down,” which was incorrect; the work groups no longer meet daily, but the EOC is still responding to the homelessness crisis.

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