King County’s plan to convert underused hotels and nursing homes into emergency housing could be a big assist in the region’s long struggle to eliminate chronic homelessness.
But it will succeed only with the insight and blessing of the communities where those shelters are located, as the ongoing controversy over the Red Lion in Renton clearly shows. The county’s smaller cities must meet the county halfway.
County leaders must learn from recent experience and defer to local experts when siting new semiprivate facilities. Leaders and residents of the county’s smaller cities should give the county a chance to prove the approach is working, and not rush to adopt ordinances to make such shelters infeasible. Homelessness is a problem in every part of the county, and all jurisdictions must be part of the solution.
This is a critical moment, one that will either spur a truly collaborative effort to address homelessness throughout the county or trigger a backlash that will impede progress for years to come.
Regional housing advocates have long known that dormitory-style congregate shelters are not the ideal first step toward housing stability. But the COVID-19 pandemic has jump-started preferable alternatives: semiprivate shelters with on-site support services. In April, to help slow the spread of coronavirus, King County moved 700 people from high-density emergency shelters into hotels in Renton, Sea-Tac, Seattle and Bellevue. It later housed another 400 people at these locations.
A recent University of Washington study showed these hotel shelters not only helped limit the spread of COVID-19 but also led to other favorable outcomes, increasing residents’ feelings of stability, reducing interpersonal conflict, improving health, hygiene, mental health and overall well-being. Ultimately, people sheltered in hotels, with access to private bed and bath, consistent access to food and increased autonomy, were more likely to engage with services and successfully transition to permanent housing, researchers found.
But the quick pivot came at a cost. That is particularly so in Renton, where occasionally real threats to public safety from shelter residents were compounded by the perception that the relocation of 230 people, many with mental-health or substance-use disorders, was forced upon the community. After spirited discussion, Renton City Council passed interim zoning rules that will start shutting the shelter down as early as June.
Mayor Armondo Pavone and council members assured the public that the ordinance is just the beginning of a process to figure out a plan for homeless shelters that provide safety, services and a path to stable housing. As Pavone wrote in a note to city residents, “Providing more independent sleeping arrangements than what was provided in Seattle does not by itself equate success.” They must make good on those promises, including robust community discussions, and develop a plan that honors the city’s responsibility and protects public safety without capitulating to unfounded fears.
Renton and King County have an opportunity to turn this quarrel into a true collaboration — an example for other communities.
Over the long term, no shelter has a chance to succeed if it is in constant conflict with its neighbors. The county must be more transparent and collaborative with local jurisdictions, or risk facing a cascade of city ordinances that will make it more difficult to site new single-room shelters where they might do the most good. The county’s smaller cities must resist the urge to adopt reactive policies and do their part.