Forecasts of severe winter storms in the Seattle area prompted the opening of more emergency homeless-shelter beds and outreach to the city's hundreds of unsanctioned tent camps, with one goal in mind: survival.

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The Puget Sound region’s frigid temperatures proved deadly as a 59-year-old man, who may have been homeless, died from exposure while at the Sodo light-rail station.

A Link light-rail train operator found the man, Derek C. Johnson, facedown on the pavement near the train platform, sometime before 5 a.m. Thursday at the transit station. He had no permanent address.

It was the first hypothermia-related death reported by the King County Medical Examiner since temperatures fell earlier this week.

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Johnson’s death punctuated what is at stake as Seattle and King County homeless-service providers brace for multiple days of snowfall and freezing temperatures predicted over the coming week. Their focus is singular: ensuring survival for the thousands of people living unsheltered in King County.

That’s meant opening shelters and paying for motel rooms —anything they can do to reach people who need help.

Both the city and homeless-service provider Mary’s Place opened shelter space for families Friday, as shelters across the county neared or exceeded capacity. King County also added more capacity, for adult men, at one of its facilities.

The message was, simply, come inside.

“If you come to one of our shelters, we — the county, the city — we will find a place for you to be safe overnight,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine, at a news conference with Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Johnson was on the light rail and got off a train at the Sodo station around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, an hour and a half before the trains shut down for the night, said Kimberly M. Reason, spokesperson for Sound Transit. A train operator later saw him lying on the platform as the train pulled into the Sodo station for the morning run, which begins at 5 a.m.

It was not immediately clear if Johnson had had contact with any shelters in recent days. He lived at the Frye Apartments in downtown Seattle in 2017 but had since left, according to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which manages the Frye. LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee said her staff believes Johnson had housing and services elsewhere but they could not confirm that on Friday.

Expensive residences at the northeast end of the Aurora Bridge are juxtaposed with the homeless encampment below, estimated by an encampment resident to number about 20 people. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Expensive residences at the northeast end of the Aurora Bridge are juxtaposed with the homeless encampment below, estimated by an encampment resident to number about 20 people. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

As concerns about the winter storm increased, Seattle officials announced the city would keep its emergency overnight shelter for adults at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall open for another week, through Sunday, Feb. 17. Burien also opened emergency shelter for adults.

Seattle is also opening shelter space for families at the Garfield Community Center. Until today, all of the walk-in, winter-weather shelters in Seattle had been for adults.

Homeless-service provider Mary’s Place also opened up more 24-hour space for families at its Women’s Day Center in downtown Seattle, calling in volunteers and even former staffers to help operate the site.

Agency spokeswoman Linda Mitchell said the family shelters are always full, regardless of the weather. With the snow, “We are way beyond capacity,” Mitchell said.

Bellevue, Kent and Renton have opened shelters that will accept families with children under 18. Already, in Renton, space was getting tight.

Renton human-services manager Guy Williams said the shelter has capacity for 30 people, but it has had 37 guests every night. He called the impact of this weather event “unprecedented.”

“There is no preparation. It’s just a matter of winging it as we go, trying to find locations and trying to volunteers,” Williams said. “Your best plan can’t prepare you for what’s going to happen Saturday morning, in terms of how do you get volunteers to places.”

Outreach to tent camps

Seattle’s Navigation Team, which does outreach to the city’s unauthorized homeless encampments, has been going to tent sites since Tuesday and plans to work through the weekend. Snow prevented the team from working Monday.

Snow covers a tent Friday at an encampment along Interstate 5 near the 50th Avenue overpass. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Snow covers a tent Friday at an encampment along Interstate 5 near the 50th Avenue overpass. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

This week, the team — a mix of police and outreach workers — focused on the city’s larger encampments so they can reach the most people at once, said Will Lemke, the team’s spokesman.

Police officers have also been transporting people to shelters in vans wherever space is available, a service the department said it would offer through Wednesday. “Please call 911 if you believe someone is cold & in need,” the department posted on its Twitter account Friday.

Generally, Lemke said, people have been more receptive to taking up offers of shelter this week than is typical.

But no one is forced to go inside because of the weather, and, presently, the city is not closing down any encampments.

The city is focused on getting people who are willing inside, Lemke said.

“This is an extreme weather event, and offering shelter is the most important thing we can do right now,” he said. “Public-health and safety concerns remain, but life safety is our primary concern as temperatures plunge and snow falls.”

More homeless people were recorded living in vehicles than tents in King County during last year’s one-night count, but there is no large outreach team in Seattle focused exclusively on vehicle campers. However, even before this week’s snowfall, the Police Department’s Community Police Teams have been regularly reaching out to people living in vehicles, Lemke said.

The shelter space the city opened at Garfield Community Center is also meant to accommodate people living in vehicles, Lemke said.

Finding shelter space

Local shelters, which are often at capacity, rely on the city and county to open emergency cold-weather shelters during a crisis like this, said Noah Fay, housing director for Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center. DESC is usually full every night, Fay said, but sometimes goes over capacity in dire emergencies.

“We will be willing to open up and let people sit in chairs if need be, but we … have occupancy issues,” Fay said. “If somebody seeks us out at the main shelter and we’re full — which we would be on a 65 degree day, let alone a 25 degree day — we refer them on to the 2-1-1 community crisis line.”

Chloe Gale, executive director of the homeless-outreach organization REACH, said her staff has moved some of their most vulnerable clients into motels in North and South King County because there are no large, walk-in shelters in those areas.

In this small encampment along Mercer Street near Seattle Center, a man under the gray blanket says he’s just trying to stay warm. Passers-by have left two soup containers and energy bars from the supermarket across the street. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
In this small encampment along Mercer Street near Seattle Center, a man under the gray blanket says he’s just trying to stay warm. Passers-by have left two soup containers and energy bars from the supermarket across the street. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“We’re very worried that so many people will be left stranded outside in the snow over the next few days,” Gale said.

Seattle Times reporter David Gutman and Project Homeless engagement editor Scott Greenstone contributed to this story. 

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