The outreach worker knew Emily Mace had to be here.
At the parking lot at Eighth Avenue South and South Jackson Street under the I-5 overpass, Nichole Alexander leaned close to a tarp-covered structure on the sidewalk and asked for Mace. Minutes later, a young woman emerged, gripping a knit sweater around her body as the chilly November air whipped against her bare knees.
Alexander, an outreach coordinator with homeless services nonprofit REACH and new program JustCARE, conferred with her client for a few minutes. Did she think she would be ready to move off the street and into a hotel room?
Would there be a shower? Yes, and a warm bed. Laundry? Yes. TV? Yes. A microwave and a fridge? Yes and yes.
With each affirmation, Mace shrieked with joy. She bounced. Twirled. Gave Alexander a high-five.
“Honestly, I’m so stoked,” said Mace, 29. “I’ve been out here four years straight.”
Mace is one of dozens of people living outside during the pandemic who are being placed directly into hotel rooms in hopes that they will not only survive the winter, but find more permanent shelter soon.
Since the global outbreak of COVID-19, new resources have flooded in for local agencies to thin out existing shelters where overcrowding raised the risk of spreading disease. Many people in shelters were moved into individual hotel rooms. But people living outside face fewer options to get inside as shelters limited their intake and other social service agencies narrowed their hours.
Now a coalition of organizations, including REACH, is racing to bring people into hotels directly from the street with federal CARES Act funding that expires at the end of the year. They hope to demonstrate that with the right supports — and attractive alternatives to sleeping outside — people will voluntarily leave encampments that have caused problems for neighbors and businesses and use the hotel rooms as starting points to stabilize their lives.
“We’re actually partnering with organizations and wrapping services around our clients, meeting them and building relationships,” Alexander said.
The effort, a collaboration among the Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, Asian Counseling and Referral Service and REACH, calls itself JustCARE, after the source of its funding. It builds off of a Public Defender Association initiative that uses hotels to shelter and stabilize people who, if it weren’t for the pandemic, might otherwise be arrested for committing low-level crimes, a tweak of the long-standing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
King County allocated $4 million to the effort in CARES Act funds over the summer, though the program is likely to come up short on spending the full amount.
The Public Defender Association’s Lisa Daugaard estimated that the hotel rooms will cost $1.7 million for up to 200 people. Maximum staffing, meals, medical services, overhead and debris removal total $952,000.
Daugaard attributed the projected underspend, an estimated $1.35 million, to timing: The county didn’t finalize a contract until late September, and sub-contracts weren’t executed until October. Any remaining federal money will be unusable after Dec. 30.
The program launched in the shadow of the end of the Navigation Team, the recently disbanded group of police officers and city social workers responsible for offering shelter to homeless people and removing encampments, often on short notice.
The city had already largely stopped pursuing encampment removals, per guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the controversial team’s cancellation caused heartburn for people worried about growing outdoor encampments.
The growing and desperate conditions of encampments outside had become too acute to ignore, Daugaard said, and doing nothing was making it worse.
“It was our diagnosis that this was not acceptable and also not viable,” Daugaard said. “The city, the region would break if that is the actual stance of our public institutions to leave people out there.”
While it’s too early to tell how effective the program will be long-term, so far, JustCARE has won the support of the Downtown Seattle Association, which represents businesses in the heart of the city and has characterized the need to reduce encampments as “urgent.”
“JustCare is thoughtful and timely investment in a coordinated response to people experiencing homelessness,” Downtown Seattle Association Vice-President Don Blakeney said in a statement. “By providing access to hotel and motel rooms, JustCare can work with people in a safe and stable environment.”
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the county council’s budget chair, also stressed the potential health emergency posed by looming winter temperatures and flu season.
“It’s inhumane,” Kohl-Welles said of the current situation. “I mean, we’re getting into winter now. And the shelters can’t just take people in. The de-intensification centers don’t have infinite capacity.”
Despite using public funding, the Public Defender Association declined to share the addresses of the hotels with The Seattle Times.
The organization said it worried about drawing negative attention to the sites and wanted to prevent people from showing up at the door and asking for resources.
As of mid-November, 78 people at the 8th Avenue South and South Jackson Street site had been evaluated for hotel placements, and 40 were given hotel rooms. The coalition has touted photos of what the area looked like before they started work there and what it looks like after four weeks as a case for how the approach could be effective at more encampments.
The site, which experienced a Navigation Team encampment removal as recently as May, had roughly 60 tents and structures at the beginning of October, according to outreach workers. A little over a month later, there were 13 left.
The other difference from resources offered to people in encampments before, according to the organizations involved, is the quality of the transitional shelter and support. At the hotels, staff are present 24-7. There are welcome kits, three meals a day and a health care provider onsite. There’s privacy — individual bathrooms and doors that close. The organizations staffing the hotels have worked with Black, Indigenous and other people of color who disproportionately suffer from homelessness in the neighborhood.
“Oftentimes when we deliver care, we have forgotten to start with a truly caring approach,” said Victor Loo, director of the Practice Innovation program at Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
Still, the connection between a hotel room and permanent housing isn’t necessarily a direct line. Getting onto the county’s housing priority list can be exceedingly difficult and often people wait months for available housing. Daugaard and others are hopeful that JustCARE can be connected to the county’s new effort to create thousands of permanent supportive housing units through a new 0.1% sales tax to speed up that connection.
They face a ticking clock. Although the CARES Act money expires Dec. 30, the county agreed to fund another month through Jan. 31.
Daugaard acknowledges that without certainty about future funding — federal or otherwise — it’s difficult to say how long people will be able to stay in the hotels.