Three health officials on the King County Board of Health are urging the panel to declare homelessness a “public health disaster” and advise local jurisdictions to respond accordingly — including potentially deploying large scale FEMA-style tents as emergency shelter before winter.
Two and a half years after both Seattle and King County declared a state of emergency for homelessness, health professionals and some local officials on the King County Board of Health say not enough is being done.
The three health officials on the public board are urging it to declare homelessness a “public health disaster” and advise local jurisdictions to respond accordingly — including potentially deploying large scale FEMA-style tents as emergency shelter before the winter.
The board heard Thursday from city and county experts on emergency response and homelessness. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, who chairs the Board of Health, said the recommendations from health officials will be discussed at the next meeting in September.
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Dr. Bill Daniell, a physician who teaches at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, said he and others on the board are frustrated by a lack of action even as the number of people living outside has risen from 3,772 in 2015 to 6,320 in the 2018 Point in Time count.
Daniell, along with Dr. Benjamin Danielson, a pediatrician, and Dr. Christopher Delecki, a dentist, both from Seattle Children’s, filed a petition to the Board of Health, Seattle and King County urging the governments to commit to providing shelter to all unsheltered people in King County before winter.
“Otherwise, it’s just a feel-good thing that we know we should be doing, but there’s not enough concerted planning,” Daniell said.
The board members expressed interest, Daniell said, and he drafted guidelines and recommendations based on the petition.
Dembowski has not signed on to the petition but agrees with Daniell’s sentiment, calling the states of emergency issued by Seattle and King County in November 2015, “phony declarations.”
“There’s a declared emergency, but as far as I can tell there has been very little action to treat it as such,” he said. “I don’t think the government is responding fast enough.”
The county did not receive any federal funding after declaring a state of emergency in 2015, Mark Ellerbrook, the county’s regional housing and community development coordinator, said at the meeting.
Declaring homelessness a public-health disaster would not trigger any specific actions or funding, Dembowski said, but it could accelerate efforts or prompt more funding.
The petition includes calling upon leaders to provide temporary large-scale disaster shelter with emergency support and to explore initiatives used in other regions, such as FEMA-style emergency tents deployed in San Diego after an outbreak of hepatitis A.
Sacramento, California, is now trying to locate sites for tents. Tacoma has a large tent-like shelter that houses private tents inside.
Daniell said he’s not necessarily advocating for tent shelters as a solution, but he thinks all options should be explored.
It’s not the first time large tent shelters have been raised as an option. In May, Rachel Smith, chief of staff to King County Executive Dow Constantine, asked staff about “any property across the county that could hold FEMA tents” or other types of shelter, according to an email obtained through a public-disclosure request.
Alex Fryer, a spokesman for Constantine, said the county is exploring options for more shelter, including large tents, but is “not currently seeking properties to site” tent shelters.
Dembowski said mass shelters may not be the best answer, because of the impact on surrounding communities and potential health concerns.
But he thinks everything needs to be on the table because of what he sees as insufficient action on “reasonable responses,” such as smaller shelters spread throughout the region.
“I understand why people are upset and turning to proposals such as mass sheltering,” Dembowski said. “I think that is born out of frustration day after day, month after month seeing people out on the streets and sidewalks dying.”
Dembowski said shelters have fallen out of favor among local officials, who have focused on permanent housing.
The draft guidelines Daniell wrote acknowledge that temporary, large-scale disaster shelter will not resolve homelessness but will reduce death and disease among unsheltered people.
In other cities, including San Diego, public-health concerns have been the catalyst to deploy tent shelters. In February, Public Health – Seattle & King County issued advisories about outbreaks of shigella, a highly contagious diarrheal illness, and Bartonella quintana, an infection known as “trench fever,” and investigated cases of hepatitis A and body lice among people who were homeless.
Daniell said he thinks officials are trying to address homelessness, and he agrees that long-term solutions — including more affordable housing — are preferable. But with winter on the horizon, he feels there needs to be focus on immediate crisis solutions.
“The problem won’t be solved by winter,” he said. “There is still need for shelter less than formal housing.”
Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who is on the Board of Health, said she agrees with the health professionals about the urgency, but she doesn’t want to sacrifice focus on long-term solutions. She hopes for more 24-hour shelters with case management combined with affordable housing and health care.
“I agree it’s not an either-or approach and we need to double down to treat this as an emergency, as declared in Seattle and the county,” she said. “But we cannot just sweep and poverty into a shelter, we need to focus on housing as well.”