When the novel coronavirus killed its first U.S. victim in King County, local officials knew that the spreading virus posed unique risks to the more than 11,100 people in the Seattle area who do not have homes, and, in many cases, access to basic hygiene services.

To date, shelter outbreaks in cities like San Francisco and Boston outpace what’s been seen in the Seattle area. But while the city and the county have worked to create new resources to protect the region’s homeless population, the response still falls short of what experts and homeless service providers say is needed.

City and county efforts have focused on three areas: opening new overnight shelters to decrease crowding in existing shelters, creating isolation, quarantine and recovery units, and installing additional hygiene services for people living outside.

Here’s a look at how Seattle and the surrounding region’s efforts to protect homeless people from COVID-19 compare to other municipalities, and how far the city and county have come in accomplishing their plans.

Use the bottom right blue arrow to scroll through the graphic.

New hygiene services

In a matter of days in March, many of the hygiene services relied on by people surviving outside disappeared.

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On March 12, the city of Seattle announced the closure of many public facilities to limit gatherings. Within 24 hours, Seattle’s homeless population lost 27 public libraries that have reliable public restrooms. At the same time, the city closed six community centers and pools, which normally offer shower programs.

Less than a week later, the fast food joints, coffee shops and restaurants that had restrooms homeless people could sometimes use closed by state executive order.

It took the city two weeks after closing libraries, pools and community centers to add six new hand-washing stations and 14 portable toilets in six outdoor locations near existing homeless encampments, according to the city.

Since the start of the crisis, the city has kept its park restroom facilities open in more than 100 parks, according to city data. It’s also opened five community centers with limited, daytime hours to offer shower services.

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.

But advocates and homeless service providers say the efforts are far from enough. A local hepatitis A outbreak has been growing over the last several months, and in March King County saw case numbers that totaled altogether those of the last five months of 2019. Nearly half were among homeless people.

“What we are seeing unfold in our city is a truly shocking experience,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness executive director Alison Eisinger told the Seattle City Council this week.

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Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller told the council that the city had struggled with keeping the sites clean and preventing hand-sanitizer theft. Each new hygiene site cost $35,000 a month to maintain, Sixkiller said. 

“But we are working through it and obviously acknowledge that more work is to be done,” Sixkiller said.

Expanding shelter

One of experts’ earliest concerns for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic was that crowded conditions inside congregate shelters, where sometimes people sleep on mats just 6 inches apart, would contribute to the spread of the disease.

Many people in these shelters were already vulnerable. Among homeless King County residents surveyed in 2019, more than a quarter said they struggled with a chronic health condition.

The city and county have faced a massive undertaking over the last six weeks: One study by leading homelessness researchers estimated that the city and county would need 9,089 new units to decrease crowding in shelters and bring new people inside.

So far, the county has confirmed 27 positive COVID-19 cases among 12 shelters tested, including two clusters of six and 12 cases respectively. On Friday, San Francisco announced that 70 people, including two staffers, at a shelter had tested positive.

But while the city and county have created hundreds of larger spaces for existing shelter clients to prevent these kinds of outbreaks, they have thus far been unable to open a fraction of the new shelter units experts say are needed to bring new people, who aren’t already living in shelters, inside.

On March 25, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a press release that the county and city “have worked to deploy every measure we can to help our neighbors experiencing homelessness, including expanding shelter capacity to nearly 1,900 spaces.”

This is a breakdown of what some of those 1,900 spaces mean, though it does not include the county’s new efforts this week to move 400 people in shelters into hotel units and pay for more. These are how many of the 1,900 spaces were available as of April 9:

Type of spaceWhat the city and county projected on March 25What’s currently open
New spaces to decrease crowding in existing shelters709518
New shelter for people who are homeless and not in shelters95*5
Isolation, quarantine and recovery units for people who don’t have a home to isolate in or need a place to recover in1,044305

Source: city of Seattle and King County

*first announced on March 5


Though the city said early last month that 95 units would become available to shelter as many as 100 new people within two to three weeks, the city now projects that the units will open in mid- to late April. Five pallets, however, have been added to Chief Seattle Club’s Eagle Village site, according to county Department of Community and Human Services spokesperson Sherry Hamilton.

The city contends that it has created “new” shelter spaces by adding more services to spaces that already had shelter clients. Setting up expanded spaces and new units “while maintaining capacity, mitigating health risks at all of our other shelter locations and adjusting to staffing reductions due to COVID-19 is unprecedented,” mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said by email.

Adding the new shelter units is complicated by staffing challenges as well as issues accessing construction and maintenance services during the statewide “stay home” order, Hightower added.

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“For more than a month, we have been asking for additional state and federal resources for mass sheltering,” Hightower said. “The city simply doesn’t have the resources to surge to the capacity we need without personnel and supports.”

Hotels

Even shelters where people are sleeping 6 feet apart are still at high risk of outbreaks spreading, according to Dr. Stephen Hwang, a researcher at the University of Toronto who has studied respiratory illnesses and their spread in shelters.

“There’s constant mingling, in the bathroom, in the hallways, at meal time,” Hwang said. “You can make them safer, but you can never make them as safe as we would like them to be.”

A better option, according to Hwang, is moving people into individual hotel and motel units.

On April 3, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would use FEMA funding to move thousands of the state’s homeless population into hotels.

Washington state does not have a similar initiative, though the Department of Commerce announced in March that it would distribute at least $250,000 in grant funding to each county that was organizing a homelessness response, which could include placing people in hotels. King County has applied for FEMA funding to reimburse the costs of hotels, trailers, modular units and more.

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King County provided 60 vouchers for vulnerable shelter residents to stay in hotels in late February and early March, and as of this week, started moving 400 vulnerable people into hotels. The Downtown Emergency Service Center also began moving 200 people into hotel units this week with county money. While the city of Seattle has used hotel units to house first responders, and council members have discussed the idea, a spokesperson for Durkan told The Seattle Times in early April that the option was cost-prohibitive, among other concerns like the availability of staffing and wraparound services.

Quarantine, isolation and recovery sites

Over the last month, the county has opened three quarantine and isolation facilities for people who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, tested positive, or believe they have been exposed: a motel in Kent, a modular site in North Seattle and a hotel in Issaquah. In addition, Harborview Medical Center is operating an isolation and quarantine site at Harborview Hall.

Out of these four locations, 150 rooms were available to accept people as of Friday.

The county said it is working to remove carpet at the hotels to meet sanitation standards before an additional 51 rooms can be opened. A modular site in White Center that could house 31 people is still in progress.

Scott Greenstone contributed reporting to this story.

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