Tag: winter shelter

County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

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Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

“It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice, and freezing temperatures closed in on Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in the downtown Seattle area, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The emphasis on the center city reflected an implicit assumption that most people living unsheltered in Seattle either live near the center city or could get there easily on public transit, using transit passes or the free bus tickets the city’s outreach teams distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, over in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. Since 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has run an occasional, informal shelter out of the American Legion hall on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of local unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. Initially, Hughes opened the building, which is owned by the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for unsheltered people “to get dry and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six people” would often sit under an overhang in front of the building to get out of the rain. Later, when the temperature dipped into the 20s, “I couldn’t get myself to throw them back out of the building,” so he started keeping the building open on the coldest night of the  year.

“I started it because it needed to be,” Hughes, who is 74, said. “The hall is there, not getting used, 95 percent of the time, so I decided it needed to get used.”

Ordinarily, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests a night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year was shaping up to be much the same as previous winters—until the county, city, and Seattle Times included the shelter on their official, public lists of available shelters just after Christmas.

“I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”—Keith Hughes, volunteer operator, West Seattle Veterans Center shelter

The result, Hughes said, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and suddenly I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, and SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health clinic, and Navos Mental Health [in Burien], asking if I had space in my shelter. I’m not a professional. I’m not a mental health counselor. I’m not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “being run by three people with no training, zero support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so that people would” volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances when shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations they were underqualified to deal with, including “at least one person in mental distress that was sent from another shelter” and a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who involuntarily “crapped all over the place” and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.

“Somebody brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from an abusive family—they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and a pair of pants, so they brought her in,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every single phone number I could get my hands on for, like, a women’s shelter— I only have so much knowledge about this—and nobody ever called me back.”

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically, all the city did was add me to the list of shelters out there and made my address public, which doubled the number of people that showed up,” Hughes said. “On really cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of which were being sent to me directly from mental health facilities. I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”

It’s unclear who, exactly, made the decision to list the West Seattle site on both the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s list of available shelters. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD staffer who now works as a senior advisor to the KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside downtown Seattle, and initially advocating against making the shelter location public.

“The facility didn’t report being above capacity, and was only at capacity on one night according to the census counts provided. Keeping open capacity hidden from the community seems counter to the point of opening emergency severe weather shelter.”—Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city listed the shelter after it became a “funder,” which it did by agreeing to pay Hughes’ higher-than-average utility bills during the official winter emergency—the only reimbursement the city has offered. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, which (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional staff, services, and supplies associated with the winter shelters they operated. Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the city “had to list” the shelter once it became a funder, which was inaccurate. PubliCola regrets the error.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly advertise that the shelter was open. “The shelter was listed in the broader news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) prior to HSD listing it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on 12/25, prior to HSD sharing it as well.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city wasn’t primarily responsible for making Seattle residents aware of what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, the city’s public information officers, including Franklin, directed the media to use and link to the HSD website in stories about available shelter; the KCRHA’s winter shelter blog post also directed visitors back to the city’s website. Continue reading ““It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter”

Anti-Development Group Dissolves, Green Lake Grinches Call for Sweeps, Impact of SPD Transfers Still Unknown, and More

No, I didn’t sign. Screenshot via change.org petition.

1. When Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in September that he would transfer 100 officers from the department’s specialized units to positions on patrol, Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland told PubliCola that SPD would be “closely monitoring [case closure and workload] data for any potential negative impacts” of the transfers. At the time, the department didn’t specify when it would begin monitoring the effects of the staff transfers, which were completed on October 1.

According to SPD public affairs officer Valerie Carson, the department still hasn’t started tracking those effects. Instead, she told PubliCola, the department will start evaluating changes in specialized units’ workloads and case clearance rates in the new year. Carson said that the department chose not to start the assessments immediately after the transfers took effect to “ensure we are looking at true trends instead of spurious results from a few weeks of data.”

As PubliCola reported in September, the transfers did not shift officers away from the specialized units identified by the City Council for downsizing or elimination, which included the harbor patrol and the mounted unit. Instead, Diaz transferred officers from the department’s Community Policing Team, domestic violence unit, and intelligence unit. The transfers from the domestic violence unit—which effectively eliminated the team assigned to investigate elder abuse—sparked concerns within the King County Prosecutor’s Office and local domestic violence and elder abuse nonprofits, who argued that reducing the number of detectives investigating domestic and elder abuse could overwhelm the already-overworked specialized units and undermine the trust of survivors.

A random online petition demanding that the city uproot homeless people from a wealthy North End neighborhood might not be cause for concern, except that the last major sweep of a North End homeless encampment was preceded by a similar petition.

2. Happy new year—now get the hell out of “our” park.

That’s what a group of Green Lake grinches are saying to dozens of unsheltered people trying to survive the winter in tents around the popular park, via a petition demanding that the city “act now to protect people, parks, and our shared environment” by sweeping the area. The petition is sponsored by “We Heart Seattle” and several “save our parks”-type groups, as well as the Green Lake Community Council.

The petition language is a familiar combination of faux-environmentalist concern about feces contaminating the lake (described as one of “our most environmentally sensitive waterways”) and performative hand-wringing about the health and safety of the people sleeping in wretched conditions on its shores.

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Like previous petitions demanding sweeps, this one presents a clear moral choice: Allow people to live in (and ruin) a public park, or offer them access to the “thousands of clean, warm, and hygienic indoor spaces [that] are available in King County.” This is not actually an option. There are, certainly, more than a thousand shelter beds in Seattle, but all but a handful are currently occupied; they aren’t just sitting vacant, waiting for recalcitrant homeless people to agree to occupy them.

The document also asserts, fancifully, that there are “thousands” of properties in King County where it would be simple to set up new “tiny home villages, Pallet shelters, and sanctioned tent communities.” In reality, these options are expensive and can take months to site and open, thanks largely to neighborhood opposition from groups like the ones sponsoring the petition.

A random online petition demanding that the city uproot homeless people from a wealthy North End neighborhood might not be cause for concern, except that the last major sweep of a North End homeless encampment was preceded by a similar petition. (The more recent removal of tents from Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill was sui generis and hard to untangle from the park’s status as a long-term protest zone). In May, the city’s Navigation Team removed a large encampment from the Ballard Commons after neighborhood residents circulated a petition that allowing people to live in the park was inhumane and created an environmental hazard. Since then, the tents have returned, and nearby encampments have continued to grow.

The Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), a group of single-family housing advocates that spent years fighting against modest density increases in and around Seattle’s densest neighborhoods, has disbanded.

3. One thing the “plenty of shelter” crowd may not realize, in addition to the negligible nightly vacancy rate, is that there are currently no low-barrier shelters in Seattle where adults can walk up, wait in line, and get a bed for the night. The last such shelter, a Salvation Army-run coed basic shelter at City Hall, closed late last year after being partly redistributed to Fisher Pavilion, at Seattle Center. Both the City Hall and Fisher shelters were replaced by a 24/7 enhanced shelter in SoDo, which requires pre-registration and is not currently taking referrals.

The city has no plans to reopen either location on a long-term basis—partly because shelter providers are stretched thin already, and partly because they want to keep both sites available in case they need to open emergency winter shelters. Except in unusually cold or snowy years (like the winter of 2017-2018, it’s rare for the city to provide people a place to go specifically to escape winter weather, by design: The city’s winter-shelter protocols, which haven’t been updated in nearly 20 years, call for opening emergency shelters only if the weather dips below 25 degrees for multiple nights, or if there is snow accumulation of more than an inch. Continue reading “Anti-Development Group Dissolves, Green Lake Grinches Call for Sweeps, Impact of SPD Transfers Still Unknown, and More”