On one of this November’s cold and rainy days, Christopher Hammack sat outside of St. Vincent de Paul’s food bank in Georgetown with everything he owned — a box of ready-to-eat food, a backpack, bags and a bike.
Hammack doesn’t have a place to live. And he doesn’t have a vehicle or a tent or even a tarp to try to keep his things dry, less than many of the nearly 4,000 people who live outside or in vehicles in Seattle on any given night.
The best he can do when Seattle’s rainy season sets in is find an awning to sleep under or ask a friend who has shelter if he can crash there, but that’s not always reliable. On his own, he’s engineered sometimes dangerous ways to stay warmer by rolling out a layer of carpet before lying down or lighting hand sanitizer in a can for heat.
“It seems like the coldest time when it rains,” Hammack said.
When severe weather hits, the city has plans in place to open emergency weather shelters, but that typically requires more than an inch of snow and temperatures below 25 degrees, said Kevin Mundt, spokesperson for the city’s Human Services Department.
Most of the rainy and cold weather Seattle receives doesn’t trigger emergency shelter activation, which leaves thousands of people outside to fight off the elements. In a year that has already seen an above-average number of homeless deaths — at least 159 homeless people have died so far this year — it raises the question of how deadly a sustained, exceptionally cold and wet winter, even if it doesn’t reach “emergency” status, will be for homeless people faced with exposure, hypothermia and more.
This year’s unusually dry summer with record-breaking high temperatures brought its own set of challenges for homeless people, and now the fall has become the wettest on record. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, Seattle has received more than 19 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service, making it one of the soggiest autumns ever.
This waterlogged season has created extra challenges for people trying to stay warm and dry warm outside, and it’s triggering concern from some homeless service providers as Seattle heads into a winter expected to be colder and wetter than average as La Niña takes hold.
According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, at least five people were reported to have died from hypothermia this year and two from hyperthermia and overheating.
“It’s pretty miserable when it’s 35 degrees or 38 degrees,” said Rick Reynolds, executive director of Operation Nightwatch, which provides housing, shelter and street outreach in Seattle.
Reynolds said that when the weather isn’t great, but isn’t bad enough to make the news, is when he worries the most about people trying to survive outside.
In February, the city of Seattle and King County activated emergency shelter options for homeless people during a winter storm that brought below-freezing temperatures and dumped inches of snow on the region. The city opened four severe weather shelters in the course of five days and reported that 216 people used those spaces at their peak.
But even those kinds of services, some homeless service providers say, are tricky to get people to use.
Often, emergency weather shelters are activated in a matter of days or sometimes just 24 or 36 hours before the severe weather arrives, leaving little time for outreach workers to inform people living outside.
“People don’t identify themselves as being vulnerable to some severe weather situations that we may see coming up,” said Chloe Gale, co-director of the outreach program REACH. “It takes some time and effort to help them figure out what are they really going to want.”
Building those relationships and communicating options, Gale said, to help people make a plan, takes time.
Several people presumed to be homeless were confirmed or suspected to have died because of the June heat wave in Washington state. One was minutes from a cooling center in Woodinville that closed early because no one came in.
In June, the city of Seattle opened an emergency shelter at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion when temperatures stayed in the 90s and topped out at 108 degrees. For the first two days the cooling shelter was open, the city reported that it was below half capacity, 40 people or fewer.
Even with preplanning, Gale worries that those efforts won’t be enough to counter a changing climate.
“My biggest fear,” Gale said, “is that we live in a time of escalating climate disaster, which is giving us much more severe weather events that we’ve not experienced before and it makes it much harder to anticipate what will happen and be able to build in the necessary prevention.”
People resist going inside, even when severe weather hits, because they don’t want to leave their belongings, said Dawn Shepard, Southend outreach system coordinator for REACH.
“So to just expect people to travel and leave their stuff behind is not realistic,” Shepard said.
One of Shepard’s clients lives in a vehicle that doesn’t run. A car isn’t warm, Shepard said, if it can’t run.
The client has lost two toes to frostbite already. And after a recent visit with him, Shepard is worried that he could lose more if he isn’t able to come inside this winter.
Beyond risks of exposure and hypothermia, people living outside also face exposure to mold once their shelter becomes damp and repeated rainfall keeps spaces from drying out.
The city is in the process of transferring its emergency winter weather response to the newly created King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which will take over shelter and outreach contracts in the new year.
Moving forward, the homelessness authority will work with the city’s Office of Emergency Management to determine when to activate extreme weather resources. But that work will look very similar to years past, said Anne Martens, spokesperson for the authority.
The authority will inherit 15 days and 200 shelter beds’ worth of backup capacity, and can negotiate with the city for more as needed.
In addition to emergency shelter resources, the city of Seattle is adding 380 new, permanent shelter beds by the end of 2021.
An increase in permanent shelter resources — ranging from hotel rooms and new tiny house villages to 24/7 enhanced shelter and more — will allow more people to come inside for good this winter, said Kevin Mundt, spokesperson for the city.
Often, long-term shelter can come with more rules, requirements and time-intensive paperwork than emergency shelters that have fewer requirements. During the pandemic, many people in shelter have been staying longer, creating fewer spaces for new people to come in.
The severe weather shelters, similar to the more permanent ones, must be staffed round-the-clock and prepared to support anyone who enters.
“The biggest challenge right now, as with every other caring profession, is in staffing,” Martens said in an email statement. “Providers are understaffed (and underpaid) to begin with, and taking on a severe weather shelter further taxes their capacity.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that nearly 5,000 people live unsheltered in Seattle. That number is closer to 4,000 people. Also, an earlier version of this story stated that the Regional Homelessness Authority will inherit 100 emergency shelter beds. It will inherit 200 beds.