King County in partnership with the city of Seattle is opening a nearly 300-bed homeless shelter in a property that has been leased, but largely vacant, since March — a move that creates one of the region’s largest congregate shelters in the midst of a pandemic that has so far pushed governments and service providers into reducing shelter size.
When King County first leased the 135,000-square-foot warehouse property in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, there were still grease stains on the floor.
Prior to March, before the novel coronavirus was first discovered in Washington, a Tesla dealership was operating out of a portion of the industrial space. The familiar trademark “T” remains molded onto one wall.
Now, the high-ceiling space with large wooden beams that once held souped-up, expensive cars will soon be home to some of the city’s poorest residents.
The new 24/7 enhanced shelter in Sodo, along Sixth Avenue South, is operated by the Salvation Army and paid for by the city of Seattle and King County. The shelter will officially open its doors to new residents starting Monday. Currently, the space can accommodate approximately 280 guests.
“I think it’s a win for everybody,” said Capt. Jonathan Harvey, general secretary for The Salvation Army in the Northwest. “I think it’s going to be a place where people can stop, breathe.”
King County leased the property in March as county officials scrambled to set up isolation and congregate spaces for patients suffering from COVID-19 to recover. The region’s caseload never required the space be used, said Leo Flor, director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services. The county pays more than $201,000 a month for the space. It was utilized for the first time in September to help people trapped in wildfire smoke because they were living outside.
“What it really showed us is that this could be a place that could also serve as shelter,” Flor said.
Much of the original floor plan remains. The new shelter is comprised of four, long connecting “bays.” Each bay is divided into pods, or dorms, roughly 8’ x 8’ squares made from three temporary walls. The front of the dorm is open. There’s a twin bed in every dorm next to a small table and chair. Residents will get a hard-plastic storage locker to store their belongings, bedding and a compact camping light for when the lights go out.
There will be wraparound services provided on site for residents, including case managers, housing navigators and mental-health specialists. Programming will cost the city of Seattle and King County more than $6 million a year.
While this new shelter will be able to accommodate nearly 300 people, it isn’t adding any new shelter beds to the city infrastructure. Rather, the Sodo location will replace some of the emergency-shelter locations that the city of Seattle set up early into the pandemic, including the Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center. It will also begin to replace longstanding overnight shelters run by the city of Seattle and King County, including a shelter in Seattle City Hall and King County’s men’s shelter near Fifth Avenue and Jefferson Street.
In addition, when the federal coronavirus-relief funding that is currently helping King County to safely house homeless residents in four hotels runs out at the end of December, Flor said this new shelter will be the first place they will transfer those people.
“When we use congregate shelter, it needs to look more like this and less like it used to,” Flor said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount in programming the new congregate shelter in Sodo will cost the city of Seattle and King County.