King County, in the middle of scouring its assets for publicly-owned land and buildings to house homeless people, is researching what it would take to put a shelter in an old wing of the downtown jail.
Plenty of homeless people walk past the King County jail every day. There is a men’s shelter across the street in the county administration building, and another shelter for people with pets down the street. But no one has put a shelter in the jail yet.
King County, in the middle of scouring its assets for publicly-owned land and buildings to house homeless people, is researching what it would take to do that.
After declaring a state of emergency on homelessness almost three years ago, County Executive Dow Constantine’s office told all departments to look for spaces that could be turned into shelter. Last year, the county lent an old public health clinic in White Center and an empty sheriff’s office in Kenmore to Mary’s Place for family shelters.
The Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention has been pondering how to use the west wing of the King County Correctional Facility downtown for years, and has discussed with Executive Dow Constantine’s office the idea of using it as a shelter. The west wing used to house minimum-security inmates and had 435 beds, but it was shut down to save money in 2012. Now, it holds classrooms, staff offices and training spaces, according to a department spokesperson.
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County spokespeople stressed that they are simply researching the cost of renovating the facility. No decisions have been made, and no timeline for a decision has been announced.
Claudia Balducci, vice chair of King County Council, who ran the detention department from 2011 to 2014, said it makes “perfect sense to look at” the wing, although it would take significant work to make it a shelter.
And functionality is not the only consideration for the county, Balducci said.
“One thing I think we have to consider is, what does it say to put someone who has not committed a crime — someone who just needs a place to sleep — in a correctional facility,” Balducci said. “I don’t think it’s wrong, per se, but it’s something we need to think about.”
To Tim Harris, longtime homeless advocate and director of Real Change, a homeless shelter in a jail would absolutely send the wrong message.
“Symbolism matters,” Harris said. “Just the optics of housing homeless people in a jail are horrible.”