It’s more than a year after the pandemic cut downtown tourism to ribbons and forced many of Seattle’s homeless shelters to empty out or relocate, but on Wednesday, the city will begin leaning into a strategy that brings those two problems together: putting homeless people up in hotels.
Almost 140 people will be moving into the historic Executive Hotel Pacific downtown starting Wednesday. They’re joining more than 800 people staying in hotels around the county, many of whom moved in last year. Next week, the Kings Inn will open to a smaller group of homeless people.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan toured the hotel — which was built nearly 100 years ago in the roaring ’20s — Tuesday, checking out hotel rooms that have in the last three weeks been turned into case manager offices, food prep areas and suites for people off the street.
“We know how hard this has been, for the people experiencing homelessness and the people in every community, to see the increase in the numbers of people experiencing homelessness,” Durkan said. “And we have to have solutions that bring people inside and make sure that community parks and sidewalks are restored for public use as we reopen and recover our economy. And those two things don’t have to work against each other; they have to work in harmony with one another.”
This hotel-turned-shelter cost $8.3 million for food, 24-7 security and live-in staff from the Low Income Housing Institute. Residents at this and the other hotel will get access to an additional $7 million through a rent voucher program to offer a way into more permanent housing. Seattle officials hope people who aren’t able to rent can take one of the estimated 600 permanent supportive housing units opening later this year.
Why now, more than a year into the pandemic, is Seattle opening hotel shelters for the first time? King County paid to move critically vulnerable homeless people out of crowded locations early in the pandemic.
These new shelters, though, are more to address the pile up of tents in neighborhoods around the city. Putting homeless people up in hotels is a response that leaders in the business community — who have complained about homeless encampments affecting their ability to make money — and homeless advocates can agree on.
On Tuesday, Colleen Echohawk, who runs the Native American-focused homeless services nonprofit Chief Seattle Club and is vying to replace Durkan this fall as mayor, called for the city to focus on one growing hot spot for camping — Miller Playfield in North Capitol Hill — because nearby Meany Middle School is welcoming students back in April.
“This is a humanitarian crisis, and it’s not working for anyone,” Echohawk said in a release that urged the city to put up homeless people in hotels. “It’s not working for the people in the tents. It’s not working for the neighbors living nearby. It’s not working for the people that want to use the playfield and it’s not working for the Meany community with school starting back up.”
When asked about Miller Playfield, Durkan hinted that the city may have to take a tougher hand in responding.
“We’ve actually been working in Miller, for a very long period of time — outreach workers and the like,” Durkan said. “And in the last four years, it’s clear that there will be many times we work in an encampment, and people don’t want to accept services. At the same time, if they won’t accept the services, you still sometimes have to move that encampment for public safety and health issues. And that may be the case with Miller.”
Those services usually come in the form of a referral to shelter, but over the last year, many homeless people have been reluctant to go to shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19. The city has conducted two high-profile encampment removals in the last six months, but most are on hold during the pandemic because of federal public health guidelines.