Hand-sanitizer hoarding leaves homeless providers struggling for supplies during coronavirus crisis

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1 of 5 Tom Parkin is a resident at the Union Gospel Mission, which is facing shortages of cleaning and hygiene supplies like hand sanitizer amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 5 Sanitizer dispensers and gloves are measures taken by the Union Gospel Mission, in an effort to protect the health of workers and residents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 5 The Union Gospel Mission is preparing bag lunches instead of feeding people inside, to protect the health of workers and residents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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4 of 5 Richard McAdams and Allison Anderson, both with the Union Gospel Mission, mask up before heading upstairs. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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5 of 5 Fewer mats inside mean more people will be outside the Union Gospel Mission as it takes measures for the health of workers and residents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

On Monday, Colleen Echohawk, executive director of homeless-services organization Chief Seattle Club, posted a message to Instagram. The moment during the COVID-19 pandemic felt “unreal,” she wrote, “like we’re living out a chapter in a science fiction novel.”

Included in the post was a request: donations for hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

As Seattle residents have prepared for increasing social restrictions to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, store shelves have been swept clear of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, leaving some homeless-service providers struggling to keep staff safe and distribute hygiene supplies to their clients.

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“We can’t find any, and it’s really vital to have,” said Chief Seattle Club’s deputy director Derrick Belgarde. “We definitely need more hand sanitizer. We’re running out of disinfectant sprays, and we ran out of wipes a while ago.”

Chief Seattle Club is now renting a hand-washing station for $600 a month, Echohawk said, which it placed in front of the building for everyone who enters to use. Because of the scarcity of hand sanitizer, a friend of Echohawk’s offered to make her own hand sanitizer to donate to the organization.

Access to hygiene services is already thin for people who live outside. Of the six, 24-hour city-funded bathrooms in Seattle, only three have sinks. Many of the thousands who live in tent encampments, on the streets or in vehicles rely on hand sanitizer not just to wash, but also as fuel for fires to keep warm.

Richard McAdams, who directs outreach at Union Gospel Mission (UGM), said his team had switched to rationing squirts of hand sanitizer when they were unable to find the individual travel-size bottles they normally distribute. As of this week, McAdams’ team has halted outreach to focus on the population within UGM shelters. But the shelter could use more cleaning supplies.

“I don’t think it does the state of Washington any favors,” said UGM safety coordinator William Williams of the public’s rush to stockpile cleaning supplies.

In response to homeless shelters’ need for supplies, King County, the city of Seattle and the United Way of King County combined all sanitation resources into one warehouse, county spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton said. The county is now taking orders from shelter and service providers for their supply “store.”

So far, the county has distributed four pallets of supplies, including bleach, gloves, masks, garbage bags and more.

But some service providers are still waiting for supplies to come through.

“We are concerned,” said Dr. Maria Yang, medical director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

The organization’s usual vendors have run out, she said, “they have nothing.” As of Monday evening, she hadn’t heard when the supplies would be coming.

“We are still asking various vendors and partners for supplies,” she said. “We are trying to conserve the best that we can while also trying to maintain hygiene.”

Seattle Times investigative reporter Daniel Gilbert contributed to this story.

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Sydney Brownstone: 206-464-3225 or sbrownstone@seattletimes.com; .