Lola Anderson-Najera finally has a door that locks.
After years of weaving in and out homelessness, sleeping “elbow-to-elbow” in shelters and sometimes outside, she’s found a tiny, temporary home. It’s small, but it has a chair to read in, an end table to hold her things, and fresh sheets. Above all, she said, there’s a new feeling of security.
“I think I actually sleep with a smile on my face here,” Anderson-Najera said.
Anderson-Najera’s 96-square-foot home, which she moved into in mid-April, is part of a new tiny-house village in Seattle’s Central District that was built and opened early as the city rushed to find more housing solutions to protect its homeless population from the spread of the coronavirus. Normally, these projects take months of paperwork and approvals, said Josh Castle of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which built the tiny houses. But the pandemic changed all that.
“[City officials] reached out to us and said, ‘We actually need you to set up these sites as quickly as possible,’ ” said Castle, LIHI’s advocacy and community engagement director.
For years, advocates, shelter providers and local leaders in Western Washington have decried a lack of drastic action to address homelessness. Now, spurred by the threat of COVID-19, a crisis response appears to be happening: Seattle and King County have opened spaces to decrease crowding in shelters, moved people into hotels, installed new hygiene stations and largely suspended removals of encampments as activists have demanded for years.
Emboldened by these steps, shelter providers, advocates and even lawmakers say that this could be the push to change how Seattle and America address homelessness, beyond the pandemic.
“Going back to the wholly inadequate way we were dealing with homelessness before COVID would be a huge failure,” said Daniel Malone, executive director of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center.
But with the federal deficit shooting to unprecedented levels, local budgets falling millions short, and the potential for many more people to become homeless amid the pandemic’s economic fallout, it’s also clear that making these changes permanent will be difficult.
“I don’t think this is going to generate the solutions, because we’re going to be broke,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We’re going to have some seriously rough times.”
An option besides shelters?
In the minds of many advocates and researchers, coronavirus has most starkly laid bare the inadequacies of large, congregate shelters, where hundreds of people sleep in bunks or on mats with little privacy or protection. Still, they’re not certain America is ready to move away from this approach.
U.S. government and philanthropy spent a combined $12 billion on emergency shelters in 2015, according to a forthcoming paper co-authored by Dr. Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and former director of research at the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans.
“I hope that the public health crisis that we’re in is making it evident to people that this has never been a good solution,” Culhane said, “and in fact, the system generates more sickness and ill health than it prevents.”
Culhane, a leading researcher in the field, has been saying this for decades: In 1991, at the height of a deadly resurgence of tuberculosis in New York City’s homeless shelters that killed thousands, he compared emergency shelters to infamous Gilded Age “poor houses” in an opinion piece in The New York Times.
“It’s such a 19th century approach to poverty,” Culhane told The Seattle Times. “They’re inhumane. You get your stuff stolen. You can be sharing a single large bathroom and showers with hundreds of people. … You’re completely disempowered, disrespected.”
Experts have called shelters “fertile ground” for the spread of coronavirus, and that puts homeless shelter residents, staff and the broader public at risk: At one shelter in Boston where every resident was tested after a cluster emerged, 146 out of 397 people tested positive — but not a single one had symptoms of coronavirus.
“We are all connected, whether we want to be or not, and I think [the pandemic] shows us that,” said Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In response to the outbreak, King County has moved more than 500 people out of crowded shelters and into hotels in the region. City and regional leaders in the past have considered buying or leasing hotels, according to Paul Carlson, who was regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness from 2003 through 2011 and an adviser on homelessness to two Seattle mayors before that. But the option was eschewed in favor of more expensive housing with better behavioral health services.
“We’ve chosen the Cadillac option, but we don’t have an economy car to offer people,” Carlson said. “What’s intolerable to me is not having less-than-perfect permanent housing, it’s having large numbers of people still so visibly on the street.”
In general, Seattle has tried to move closer to dormitory-style shelter in the past few years, with a push toward “enhanced” shelters that place only a few people in a room and have no requirement that residents leave during the day.
It’s an approach that experts say has been successful in places like Helsinki, where more than 500 hostel and shelter beds were removed between 2008 and 2016. They were converted into private dormitories or replaced with housing units from the Finnish government, which spent millions of euros on a nationwide program in the past decade to build around 5,000 units.
But Roman is skeptical that local or federal governments will be in the position to provide money for a transformation. The Congressional Budget Office projected last week that the U.S. deficit will reach $3.7 trillion this year and $2.1 trillion next year, creating challenges in the “economy and the labor market that are expected to persist for some time,” CBO Director Phillip Swagel said in a blog post.
“What we’re looking at are all the options that we have in front of us, and returning to congregate shelter is one of those options,” said Tess Colby, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s senior adviser on homelessness. “We are cognizant of the fact that moving from the shelter system that we had before to a more disaggregated shelter system going forward, for example, is really resource dependent.”
The needs exposed by the pandemic could help spur support for more affordable housing, though, said U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, who is pushing to strengthen federal tax credits to build low-income housing.
“We had a housing crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic,” DelBene said. “We know that with COVID-19, that’s going to make that problem worse, and that means that people are going to be on the edge.”
Culhane — who used to be an activist around homeless issues, and was a founding organizer of Boston’s Union of the Homeless in 1986 — said he believes the time is right for a new mobilization of homeless organizers.
“If I was a community organizer, I would tell every homeless person in every hotel not to move ever,” Culhane said. “I would say, ‘Make them take you out in handcuffs.’ And I would use the political pressure to solve the problem once and for all.”
“Better than cholera”
The day Megan Estrada saw portable toilets and a hand-washing station appear just around the corner from the camper where she lives with her husband and two dogs, she thought, “Whoa.”
Since the pandemic began, people living outside or in vehicles in her neighborhood had been hard-pressed to find public bathrooms that were open 24/7. Sometimes people had resorted to busting the lock on the nearby park bathroom at night.
Estrada quickly took a picture and put it up on a Georgetown neighborhood Facebook group. “It’s something everybody’s been looking for,” she said. Recently, the city came by to pump out her sewage tank. And now that the bathrooms have been installed, she’s seen less human waste on the ground nearby.
Seattle had long held out against providing portable toilets to the thousands of people living outside. It wasn’t just the logistics of keeping the places clean: The idea had stirred political controversy for years, criticized as condoning unsanctioned camping.
But the pandemic — and the business and service shutdowns that took away existing hygiene resources — pushed the city.
In late March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new COVID-19 guidance to cities: Provide 24-hour portable toilets and sinks to encampments if there aren’t restrooms nearby, and stop clearing encampments away unless individual housing units are available. Six days later, Seattle started setting up additional portable toilets and hand-washing stations in parks and near food banks. The city had largely halted clearing encampments by mid-March.
By the end of April, the city had set up 11 new portable toilet and hand-washing stations, including the one near Estrada’s camper. Though still not enough to meet the need, the new hygiene resources were part of what Durkan in April called “unprecedented new investments for people experiencing homelessness,” along with expanded shelter, quarantine, isolation and recovery units.
The city has declined to speculate on what future policy could look like for people living outside, emphasizing the need for more state and federal resources as Seattle stares down a pandemic-related budget shortfall.
Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, said she thought it “unfortunate” that “it took this kind of outbreak” to set up more portable hygiene facilities. But she said she hoped local governments would continue to expand on and provide these resources even after the pandemic subsides.
“To me it’s such a no-brainer in terms of providing this basic access to hygiene,” Godwin said. “These are lessons that we learned at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, how critical basic hygiene is to good health for everybody.”
Limiting widespread encampment removals had also been on advocates’ agendas for years.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who has been critical of the city team conducting encampment removals, said the current encampment strategy is more focused on minimizing harm to people outside: The CDC warns that breaking up encampments and moving people around can further spread disease.
But allowing encampments to remain has frustrated some neighbors. More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition in recent weeks demanding that Durkan remove encampments in residential neighborhoods and parks.
“Most of what is going on is a desire to make people disappear,” said Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Alison Eisinger of local encampment removals. “Unless and until people have what they need and a better place to be, local government will never solve the issues it says it’s trying to solve by sweeping.”
Intervening in unsheltered homelessness going forward has to mean “massive public investment,” Eisinger said. “We can’t, as a city, as a county, as a culture, take ourselves seriously if we say the best we can do is try to find a few dozen Porta Potties,” she added.
Many are skeptical that the situation will immediately improve for people surviving outside.
Joe Bernstein, who is homeless, is among the skeptics. On a recent Tuesday, he pushed a cart of his belongings up the hilly sidewalks to Ravenna Park — one of the few places he’s recently been able to access running water. In order to get to the closest, most accessible bathroom, he must walk more than a mile from the doorway where he sleeps.
“One of my criticisms of one of my favorite writers is that he has people experience stuff that changes their outlook on life completely,” Bernstein said. “And I just don’t think that happens that fast.”
Bernstein has launched a blog where he humorously describes trying to use the city’s park bathrooms during the pandemic. He’s found several of them locked, others missing various components.
As for the city’s added portable toilets, he’s not giving the city any gold stars. “They’re certainly better than cholera,” he said.
Yet Bernstein does hope the pandemic might stir more empathy in Seattle.
“I would like to think that people’s attitudes towards the problem will be somewhat different,” he said. “And I would like to think that would play into politics.”
Estrada said she has noticed a change in people’s attitudes around the neighborhood. Little lending libraries have turned into food pantries. Her husband was laid off from his job as a result of the pandemic, and when the couple couldn’t find propane in order to cook, someone online offered to help.
“It makes me feel a lot better to know that people are starting to, if not understand, at least have more compassion,” Estrada said, tearing up. “I think it’s bringing people closer together.”
Correction: This story has been changed to correctly attribute a quotation to Paul Carlson.