When temperatures dropped below freezing earlier this month amid a winter snowstorm, more than 200 people sought shelter inside emergency facilities set up by Seattle officials, according to the city.

The winter storm tested the city’s emergency response to unsheltered homelessness at a time when the pandemic has forced shelter operators to thin out overcrowded facilities and outdoor homelessness has become even more visible on city streets. An estimated 3,700 people live outside or in places not designed for human habitation in Seattle, and last year, six people presumed to be homeless died of causes involving hypothermia.

The pandemic has, in many cases, made it more difficult for government-funded resources to reach people outside.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

“COVID-19’s ongoing impacts to the city’s shelter system has stretched staff thin. Setting up multiple short-term shelters quickly, and providing 24/7 services, increase these stressors,” said interim Human Services Department director Helen Howell in a statement thanking homeless service providers.

Over the course of a week starting Feb. 9, the city opened up four severe weather shelters at City Hall, Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center and the Garfield and Bitter Lake community centers. Both Fisher Pavilion and Garfield Community Center had previously served as overflow facilities when the pandemic first struck and crowded Seattle shelters needed to create more space among beds.


Each shelter was open 24 hours and had meals provided by OSL, formerly called Operation Sack Lunch. Increasing numbers of people ventured inside the shelters over the course of the week as temperatures dropped: Just 27 people used the emergency shelters on the night of Feb. 9; on Feb. 14, 216 people came indoors.

By the end of the week, service providers and the city made 83 referrals for people to get into other shelters and hotels beyond the severe weather event.

Outdoors, the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One van brought 18 people into shelter and carried one person to the hospital. The city’s new HOPE team, which replaced the city’s former team of police officers and outreach workers tasked with removing encampments, reported conducting 380 welfare checks during the week of snow and passing out winter supplies to 277 people in need.