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.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

“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.

View this post on Instagram

🚨A LETTER FROM OUR EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR COLLEEN ECHOHAWK🚨 . Dearest friends, . The past two days have been strange. Our work here at Chief Seattle Club seems more precious, more important, more vital than ever. We are faced with uncertainty – there are no protocols for this situation. A pandemic seems unreal, like we're living out a chapter in a science fiction novel, and yet it seems eerily familiar. The emerging field of epigenetics theorizes that we feel the impact of trauma in our genes, that it’s passed down to subsequent generations. Our community has encountered pandemics before; our homeless relatives (Chief Seattle Club members) encounter ongoing trauma and health risks that almost ensures an early death – but Native people know what to do in these stressful and extreme situations. . . We take care of each other. We intentionally look for the most vulnerable in our community. We comfort them and lift them up. . . Our community has experienced great tragedy, yet has exhibited great resiliency. We have been given this gift and we extend it to you. The City of Seattle has been given an opportunity to shine in the midst of trauma and distressing circumstances; this is the time to show our greatness as a community by giving, sharing, supporting and believing in the goodness and humanity embedded in each of us by the Creator. . . Chief Seattle Club will remain open. Our relatives depend on us for their basic needs and we will keep our doors open seven days a week as long as we can maintain a safe and clean environment. We are looking for donations of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies; We are also in need of financial support. Many of our staff have children, and with schools closed until April 24th, we are hoping to raise funds to help support our staff who will soon run out of vacation and sick leave. You can donate towards this effort by clicking the link in our bio Please include "COVID-19" in the notes section.

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