More than six weeks after the city publicly announced that it planned to convert the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle into a temporary shelter for 50 people by early April, the new shelter finally opened on Friday—with just five young adults as guests. (According to the city, three more had moved in by Monday). The residents of the new expansion shelter had been staying at YouthCare’s overnight shelter in Southeast Seattle, which has a (cramped) capacity of 20 clients under ordinary, non-COVID conditions.
When COVID started forcing shelter operators to find more space for people to sleep, Youthcare development and communications officer Jody Waits said, it became clear that “our choices were: Cut services in half, or let’s see if we can find a bigger space.”
“What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”
The shelter’s clients are mostly from Southeast Seattle, which was one reason the agency scoured the area for a suitable temporary location before moving to a location seven miles, and an hour’s bus ride, away. Eventually, it came down to the Teen Life Center or a disused funeral home in South Seattle that would require extensive retrofits. Shelter clients and staff considered both options, and ultimately picked West Seattle.
“Our clients in that space [on Rainier] are so highly tethered on a community level to that neighborhood that moving out felt really impossible to consider,” but eventually, “we realized that despite all of the desire to stay in South Seattle, as opposed to Southwest Seattle, we just weren’t going to find an option that we could do fast enough” in the area, Waits said.
Before YouthCare moved the shelter, they tried to downsize, finding temporary housing for some residents and expediting permanent housing for others. That left just a handful of people—those who truly had nowhere else to go—to move into the Teen Life Center, which has been closed to the public since March 13.
The city has confirmed that the center will be staffed by employees from Seattle’s parks department and patrolled by guards from Phoenix Security, a private security firm that charges the city $90 an hour to provide security at two temporary shelters in the Central District and on Capitol Hill.
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A spokesman for the city said the space would “shelter up to 30 young adults” once it gets up to full capacity. Separately, an HSD spokesman forwarded an email from the city staffer who is leading the Teen Life Center effort, who wrote that HSD had “set a deadline for full utilization of 20 participants by [the] week of May 18.”
Waits says it’s unlikely the temporary shelter will ever have 30 clients, which is 50 percent more than the shelter had when it was located in a convenient, familiar location. “Our contract doesn’t support provision for 30 [young adults], we’re not compensated to take care of 30 young people and … we don’t have the staffing for 30,” she said.
As for the lower number: “Everyone is hopeful that we will get back up to that 20-youth threshold.” But there’s no way to force young adults to come to the shelter, or stay there—a problem Waits expects to become more acute when the weather turns warm and the city starts to reopen.
“Good weather changes young people’s decisions,” she said. “What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”
Early on in the COVID crisis, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department frequently claimed that the city and county had jointly created “1,900 new temporary housing options.” These “options,” as I reported at the time, consisted mostly of hospital and isolation/recovery beds that were not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness, plus shelter beds that had been temporarily moved to new locations so that people could sleep six feet apart. But they also included beds that never actually opened—including 50 at the Teen Life Center. The Loyal Heights Community Center, site of another 50 of the 1,900 beds announced in March, remains closed.