When June Marceau — “Junebug” on the streets — heard from her caseworker that she could get out of her tent in Denny Park and into a government-funded hotel room, she was unsure she could leave her cousin and neighbors she helped protect.
Now that she’s been staying in a hotel in Wallingford for two months, she doesn’t think she can go back: A week after moving into the hotel, she tested positive for COVID-19, and though she weathered it in county isolation, she still spends much of the day resting.
“There’s no way I could last out there,” Marceau said. “As it is right now I’m sick as heck. I can’t even function.”
The county is burning through its rainy day fund to pay for hundreds of rooms like Marceau’s that were leased last spring to house vulnerable people who were staying in shelters or living outside during the pandemic. With federal money promised but only a small chunk in hand, the homeless hotel sheltering strategy that has proven successful not just at separating people who would otherwise be in crowded spaces, but in helping them find some stability, is in jeopardy.
King County is spending $5 million a month to operate Marceau’s hotel, five other hotels in Seattle and South King County and the quarantine hotel she stayed in while she was sick, as well as two other facilities for people who get the coronavirus but don’t have homes to quarantine in. That amount does not include health care and nursing, which is coming out of Public Health’s budget.
The county has promised to fund the facilities until March 31, hoping that either Congress passes a funding package for local government, or that some or most of that money would be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
“We’re piecemealing couch pennies together to try to keep those hotels up and running with some local resources,” said Steve Andryszewski, chief financial officer for the county’s Department of Community and Human Services.
Andryszewski and county staff are hoping that President Joe Biden and Congress will pass a relief bill that includes state and local funding by March 15.
“Until then, we don’t have a long-term plan, but we are piecing together a couple of short-term plans in order to keep those hotels operational,” Andryszewski said.
At the same time, people on the streets of Seattle are more visible than ever as traditional shelters have had to limit capacity, and businesses have been ratcheting up pressure on city government to do something. So the city of Seattle is just now really ramping up its efforts to get people into hotels and also trying to expand traditional congregate shelter.
But many nonprofits are stretched too thin to take government money that comes with lots of paperwork, restrictions and potential future audits: Funding for 125 shelter beds the city bid out last year has still not been awarded, news site PubliCola reported last month.
Activists have been pushing cities to open more hotels and get the more generous FEMA reimbursements that Biden implemented his first week in office. In a demonstration last week in Olympia, 10 activists were arrested while occupying a hotel to try and convince the city government to use FEMA funds to pay for rooms for homeless people.
Though Biden has ordered FEMA to up the amount it reimburses to 100% — even retroactively to the beginning of the pandemic — from the 75% required by law, the county and city have to front those costs and can’t yet count on that funding to come quickly.
“FEMA remains a difficult funding source to access with strict guidelines for procurement and contracting,” Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department, said in an email.
Lemke said that the city might wait years before reimbursement arrives.
The county, for instance, is still waiting for more than half the FEMA reimbursement they applied for at the beginning of the pandemic to open up the hotel shelters and isolation and quarantine sites. The county spent almost $60 million just in the first three months of the pandemic and has only received a little more than $21 million.
There are a lot of costs associated with running these sites that FEMA doesn’t reimburse, such as behavioral health clinicians to treat the large population of homeless people who have serious mental illness. FEMA doesn’t consider behavioral health to be part of the emergency, Andryszewski said, but the underpaid and overworked frontline staff at the hotels often need backup support. FEMA also only pays for hotel rooms for people who are in a high-risk category for severe symptoms from coronavirus, such as people with liver disease or asthma.
As if there weren’t enough moving parts in this machine, the county is also relying on the state Legislature to enable it to buy hotels to use as shelter permanently. The county wants to spend money from a sales tax passed last year, but to do that, it needs the state Legislature to pass a law allowing it to bond against not-yet-collected funds and buy the hotels.
For nonprofits, the myriad sources of funding and availability make planning for the future difficult. Operation Sack Lunch, which delivers food to shelters and hotels often without reimbursement, has almost doubled its staff since the pandemic hit but had to tell more than 4,000 volunteers to stay home. Last year, when the first round of local CARES Act funding hit its bank accounts, the nonprofit had only one month of operating budget left, according to Beverly Graham, the founder.
After the federal funding ran out in December, Graham was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” so she wouldn’t have to lay off the 30 people she’d hired after the pandemic — almost half her staff.
“Last year was gruesome, and we have entered into another gruesome stage,” Graham said. “We’re just moving forward on faith.”
The city’s Human Services Department told Graham to hold on, she said, and it found enough funding for the nonprofit to keep staff through June.
But short-term bursts of money cause spikes in funding that are difficult to match with staffing and clients, and can be hard for smaller nonprofits like Operation Sack Lunch — which had only two administrative employees last year — to absorb.
“It’s not as simple as writing a check; we have to support organizations,” said Leo Flor, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services. “They don’t have an infinite ability to absorb new money when it comes with these time restrictions and administrative requirements.”
For both the nonprofits and county, the funding challenge now presages a bigger question of where these hundreds of people go once COVID-19 subsides and federal money goes away. After five years living outside, Marceau has used far less heroin while in the hotel room than when she was on the streets; she’s gone from an eighth of an ounce to two little “dime bags” a day — but she has serious abscesses from the needles.
“I’m basically halfway on the streets still,” Marceau said. “If I had a permanent place, I would so get sober in a heartbeat.”