Michael Lee isn’t sure what’s going on.
He said he’s been using heroin for years, ever since an accident that put him in a wheelchair and introduced him to painkillers.
Up until a month ago, he was spending $20 a day on it; it was easy to find near the shelter where he’d been living for two years, Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle.
Then, King County paid to put up Lee and more than 200 other homeless men and women in a hotel in Renton. And since then, Lee said, he hasn’t used heroin once.
“I could go downtown and get it if I wanted to,” Lee said. “But — I don’t know what’s going on. I just don’t want it anymore.”
Lee is sitting in the Renton Red Lion Hotel’s carport, where others around him are chatting, smoking, and enjoying the sun. But while he avoided hanging out in front of the shelter downtown, he enjoys it here. People are laughing, and joking; the mood is different.
In an approach being tested across the West Coast, King County paid to put the equivalent of an entire downtown shelter into a hotel to protect the residents — some of the most medically fragile and mentally ill people living without homes — from COVID-19. At this hotel, the emergency move appears to have also demonstrated, at least through data from the first month, the benefits of an approach that houses people before asking them to get an income or agree to change their behavior.
Inside the shelter, reports of fights, overdoses, violence and threats are down; Renton police are responding to far fewer calls at the hotel than Seattle police did at the Third Avenue shelter. (There are slightly fewer residents in the hotel than there typically are in the main shelter.) People in mental health crisis are staying more often, instead of walking off and potentially wandering streets in distress. In other King County cities hosting smaller shelters in hotels, shelter staff say similar things are happening.
County Executive Dow Constantine said Thursday in the first meeting of the governing board of the regional homelessness authority that of more than 200 tests at the hotel, there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of COVID-19.
“That clearly would not have been the case if we had left them in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said. “That is a success story.”
But it’s unclear what will happen when the immediate threat of coronavirus is gone. So far, putting up more than 600 people in hotels around the county through mid-May will cost more than $2.7 million, not including deposits.
And some cities hosting these shelter populations are growing impatient: Business leaders in Renton say they’ve seen shoplifting skyrocket, compounding their challenges at a time when they’re struggling with revenue loss related to the pandemic shutdown.
Diane Dobson, CEO of the Renton Chamber of Commerce, expressed frustration with what she said was little communication and no offers of support in forms of extra security or mitigation funds. The county asked Renton to take on a larger chunk of the population than other cities, and pushed the business community to a place of compassion fatigue, she said.
“I said, ‘What mitigation would make this better?'” Dobson said. “And their response was, ‘Make them go away.’ That’s not the type of response that six months ago, I would ever anticipate hearing from some of those business owners. And it breaks my heart as a human that that’s what their response is — out of self-preservation.”
Hotels in Bellevue and SeaTac with half the number of homeless residents have not generated a noted rise in 911 calls, according to police spokespeople in those cities, but Erin Sitterley, the mayor of SeaTac, on Wednesday told King County staff during a tense weekly check-in call with south county leaders that SeaTac is seeing “an uptick in problems” she blamed on transit “bringing folks in who are seeking services.”
“When are these sites going to be decommissioned and moving these folks back to the shelters where they came from?” Sitterley asked.
Calli Knight, deputy director of external relations for the executive’s office, said that would depend on when the county’s emergency order lifts.
Inside the hotel
DESC data from inside the Renton hotel shows a drop in daily chaos compared to the downtown shelter.
Residents are fighting far less: The number of red-flag incidents — violence, threats of violence, overdoses, residents not complying to the point where staff ask them to leave the shelter for a while — was 133 in April 2019, according to Sam McKnight, the shelter manager. Last month, it was 33.
“When you are sharing space with 200 people, it’s easy to get agitated — you don’t have a place to think quietly,” McKnight said.
Renton police responded to 60 911 calls at the hotel in the first month the DESC clients were there, while during the same month last year Seattle police responded to 105 at the downtown shelter.
Of course, for Renton’s smaller police department, 60 calls for one hotel is nothing like Commander Jeff Hardin, head of patrol operations for the south precinct, has ever seen in his time on the Renton police force. In the area surrounding the hotel, the police have seen calls go up 79 percent.
“In the 23 years I’ve been here,” Hardin said, “I’d be very surprised if we could find a spot that had increased by 79 percent.”
Rentonites around the hotel have experienced disruptions as well: In one incident on May 8, a shelter resident with apparent mental health issues entered a home 27 blocks away from the hotel, thinking it was her mother’s home, according to a police report. Inside, she picked up a 2-year-old boy and yelled for everyone to leave; the child’s father hit her and forcibly removed her. When police arrived, she was walking down the street crying, with a large cut on her head.
The couple decided not to press charges, according to Hardin.
In response to the rise in incidents, the mayor, city council president, police chief and others asked the Metropolitan King County Council this month to make sure the shelter residents don’t stay longer in Renton than the 90 days originally planned. County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents Kent and the part of Renton the hotel sits on, said he thinks a hotel in Seattle should be able to take in the shelter-stayers.
County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor wrote in an email: “County staff continue to meet with Renton city staff and community members to discuss any issues or concerns, including weekly phone calls, and we are committed to identifying and acting on ways to support the community and the people DESC is sheltering.”
Dan Malone, executive director of DESC, said he’s open to moving — or to working out an agreement where Renton gets more support from the county — but either way, he hopes they won’t return to the main shelter.
Lee hopes he won’t have to go back, either. He’d been staying there for two years and was about to give up and leave before COVID-19 hit.
“I was starting to get social anxiety — having nervous breakdowns,” Lee said.
He’d been attacked several times, he said, and hit in the head. A quiet man who uses a wheelchair, he was scared of other residents. But that, too, has changed. People he’s seen for years but never said two words to have become his friends.
“I’m starting to get to know people and they’re nothing like I thought they were,” Lee said. “There’s somebody in there.”