Forty-one years ago, the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) opened a large disaster-style homeless shelter in the former ballrooms of the Morrison Hotel in downtown Seattle.
Every single night since, the Morrison shelter provided refuge to approximately 250 of Seattle’s most vulnerable people. That is until April 9, when COVID-19 shut it down. When there’s a deadly pandemic stalking the land, it’s no longer possible to crowd hundreds of people together, some elderly and many with complex medical problems and mental-health conditions.
In some ways, the closure was a relief. A congregate shelter environment can be deeply stressful for people already living with immense personal suffering and uncertainty. It’s also a perfect environment for a virus to spread.
For years, research has shown that the answer to homelessness is housing. But there’s never been enough housing — nor the political or public will to support it. This pandemic has forced the issue about the kinds of places we make available to people without housing.
Under pressure to move people out of the shelter at the Morrison, King County rented an unoccupied Red Lion in Renton, and we moved 200 of our clients there. For the first time in many of their memories, each resident had a room and bathroom of their own. Almost overnight, people’s lives improved. Research by the University of Washington found that the shift from shelters to hotels in King County has increased feelings of stability, improved health and well-being, reduced conflicts and lowered volumes of 911 calls. It has also increased rates of transition to permanent housing. And as for COVID-19: No outbreaks in this environment.
Behavioral-health disabilities such as mental illness and addiction don’t suddenly vanish when people have somewhere to stay, but without the intense stress of homelessness and inappropriate living situations, research shows improvements become much more likely. We owe it to these vulnerable community members not to revert to the old way of squeezing people into crowded environments.
Unfortunately, Renton’s city government is pushing to shut down the Red Lion shelter, citing size concerns among other things. Homelessness is a countywide problem that we all own; the solutions must be countywide, too. The Red Lion site was launched quickly due the crisis created by the pandemic, and one lesson we have learned is that siting these locations will require significant preparation and greater outreach and cooperation with local elected officials.
Additionally, it has become clear that there is significant homelessness in Renton like so many other places in King County and beyond. At the Red Lion, we have accepted at least 30 referrals for people already in Renton needing shelter, from local police, fire and medical services, as well as business groups. Unfortunately, we had to turn down still more due to capacity limits. A commitment by Renton to identify at least one other, likely smaller, property to replace part of what is being provided at the Red Lion now would go a long way toward our ability to wind down operations at the Red Lion.
Another challenge is funding to purchase and convert hotels. Some of that will come from King County, which recently passed a small sales-tax increase for this purpose. Any federal recovery package should also include funding for converting unused hotels into enhanced shelters. But improving how we shelter homeless people will only work if it is paired with a communitywide commitment to build more supportive housing, so people have somewhere to go when they leave the shelter.
DESC’s clients are some of our society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people, living with tremendous challenges including extreme poverty, mental illness and other disabilities. As we imagine a more just and equitable society in the wake of this pandemic, we have a rare opportunity to rethink how we help those most suffering on our streets. I hope history will remember this as a time when we used upheaval for good.