Seattle and King County will temporarily open six additional spaces for people experiencing homelessness in an effort to help already crowded shelters follow social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s offices announced in a news release Wednesday night.

It’s the largest expansion of its kind, four weeks into the local COVID-19 outbreak. The new spaces are not for new shelter clients, but for people who have already been living in crowded shelter conditions.

The shelter spaces will include Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, to hold 146 spaces for people who have been living in shelters, as well as the Garfield Community Center, Miller Community Center, Loyal Heights Community Center and the Southwest Teen Life Center to hold 50 spaces for shelter residents each. The Miller Community Center, which had been open to all for showers on weekdays starting on March 12, will now be restricted to use by shelter clients.

King County helped an existing Bellevue shelter create extra room, and will add shelter space on Harbor Island as well.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Shelters have struggled to protect both clients and staff in recent weeks, as a run on cleaning supplies and masks have made protective equipment scarce. Crowded shelters have also decreased capacity in order to keep clients a safe distance apart, which in some cases has meant turning people seeking emergency shelter away.

Last week, a report by leading homelessness researchers estimated that King County would need to create 1,770 new units to decrease crowding in existing shelters, and create more than 9,000 new units for people currently living unsheltered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The move comes two days after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide stay-at-home order. Seattle had previously opened space at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall to accommodate people sleeping in Downtown Emergency Service Center shelters. Two weeks ago, King County repurposed the arrivals section of Boeing Field to serve as added shelter space for vulnerable, older men already staying at the St. Martin de Porres shelter in Seattle.

At the beginning of the month, Seattle announced it would expand spaces at the Lake Union Tiny House Village; create a new, 30-space tiny house village in the Central Area; and turn a former treatment facility in Bitter Lake into a shelter for up to 50 people.

In addition to creating space for existing shelter residents, the county announced it would be creating another assessment and recovery facility for people who cannot recover inside a home. It will be located in Sodo, off of Sixth Avenue South.

The county had previously opened up several units intended for quarantine, isolation or recovery at Harborview Hall, a Kent motel and in North Seattle, and has plans to open up more in Issaquah, Shoreline, White Center, Interbay and Bellevue.

As shelters across the region have limited hours or access in response to COVID-19, on Sunday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance that cities should not clear encampments of people surviving outside unless individual housing units were available. Doing so would “cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC wrote, as well as increase the risk of spreading infectious disease.

Seattle announced last week that its Navigation Team, the group of outreach workers and police officers tasked with clearing encampments, would halt encampment removals unless extreme access and public safety circumstances presented themselves. The city also announced that it would be deploying hygiene trailers, portable toilets and hand-washing stations for unsheltered people across the city, though as of Monday afternoon, none had yet been set up.

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