A report from the Seattle City Council Monday summarizes what has been obvious to Seattleites for the last year: COVID-19 took a bite out of space in Seattle’s shelters.
Between December 2019 and 2020, the city lost around 300 shelter beds, the report says. While that loss was later offset by the addition of nearly 200 beds in temporarily leased hotels, those spaces are expected to close next year.
The rest of the county lost even more shelter beds — altogether, emergency shelter beds in King County dropped from 5,060 to 4,419 in a similar time frame, according to data from the county’s homelessness database.
And that doesn’t even include shelters that don’t get government funding, such as Union Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square, which used to shelter about 300 men a night and now only shelters 142, according to a spokesperson for the shelter.
For those living in or near encampments in Seattle, this is simply a confirmation of what’s been documented. One study found that after the pandemic hit, the number of tents in Seattle’s heavily populated areas rose by 50%.
It also found that people ask city-funded outreach teams for shelter 2.5 times more often than they can accommodate. To Council member Andrew Lewis, who asked the council’s staff to create this report, these data show that the encampments haven’t proliferated in Seattle because people want to live outside, but because they don’t have anywhere to go.
“This data does not indicate to me that the primary problem is service resistance. If it were, regardless of the size of the system we would have high vacancy rates, and we don’t,” Lewis said. “When these teams can offer some kind of shelter, people do seem to jump at the opportunity to take it.”
In the last year, the city has poured around $55 million more into leasing hotels and setting up shelter beds that have more privacy than old mats-on-the-ground shelters, but that investment has so far gone to bringing the citywide number of beds back to what it was pre-pandemic.
Around 215 beds have been funded by the city council but not yet set up in large part because of a labor shortage at homelessness nonprofits that Lewis and other council members have pledged to address this budget cycle.
A spokesperson for Seattle’s Human Services Department said that with nearly 400 shelter beds scheduled to open by the end of the year, the city will end the year with an increase of 250 permanent beds compared to before the pandemic.
“During a pandemic, when everyone has been stretched incredibly thin, HSD collectively pulled together to not only address the health and safety of shelter guests, but also to increase and improve our shelter inventory,” HSD spokesperson Kevin Mundt wrote in an email.
Most of the shelter beds in Seattle now have some privacy, a place for people to store their belongings, and are staffed 24/7 so they don’t kick people out during the day. Before the pandemic, only three quarters of Seattle’s shelter spaces were these so-called “enhanced shelter” spaces or tiny houses, according to Mundt, but by the end of the year they’ll make up 92%.
This means the city is now essentially paying more for “increased quality but decreased quantity,” Lewis said.
The future, however, looks brighter: The report points out that between 2020 and 2023 more than 2,000 housing units for homeless people will open up, which is a 47% increase from before.
“Over the past two years the city has made record investments to address our homelessness and housing crisis, our region’s most pressing challenge that has been magnified in the pandemic. By deepening our partnership with the (King County Regional Homelessness Authority) we will finally begin to truly address this crisis with a regional approach,” said Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.