As part of what the Seattle mayor’s office calls a “shelter surge,” Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed leasing up to 300 hotel rooms, funding new housing vouchers and creating more than 100 new shelter beds for people living homeless.
The new spaces would be funded in the 2021 city budget with $34 million from the federal Emergency Solutions Grant program for homelessness assistance and the Community Development Block Grant through the larger CARES Act.
If approved by the Seattle City Council, the effort would be the first time during the COVID-19 crisis that Seattle will directly lease hotel rooms to use as homeless shelter spaces.
The use of hotels to shelter people living homeless in King County and elsewhere has been widely lauded by homeless service providers who say that the added privacy and safety of the space has stabilized their clients in ways they hadn’t previously seen.
But placing people who are homeless in hotels has also met resistance from some neighbors who fear their health and safety could be put at risk by proximity to the facilities.
Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller said Seattle’s proposal applies lessons from King County’s hotel effort, to which Seattle also lent some support.
“It’s creating a surge capacity in the overall shelter system as part of our ongoing COVID-19 response to get through the winter, get through what experts are saying will be another bump in COVID cases nationally,” Sixkiller said in an interview.
The hotel units, along with the additional shelter beds and vouchers, could help more than 350 households find housing or avoid homelessness, he said. They also would serve as a path into hundreds of new housing units being created next year.
In August, city officials announced they would focus two years of Seattle Housing Levy money to build nearly 600 units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people who are often the most visible symptoms of the homelessness crisis on Seattle streets.
“I think this gives us an opportunity as a bridge as new units come online,” Sixkiller said. “It’s COVID response. It’s [also] acknowledging we don’t have a lot of vacancy or throughput in the system.”
With people sheltering in place now, there simply isn’t enough space for those living homeless to come inside off the street, Sixkiller said. Shelters have limited capacity in response to the pandemic and fewer people have been cycling through them. New encampments, meanwhile, have cropped up in public spaces throughout the city.
In the spring, the city opened up 95 additional emergency shelter spaces as providers scrambled to thin out existing crowded shelters that put people at risk for contracting COVID-19. Those new shelter spaces were filled within 45 days.
King County also leased hundreds of hotel rooms to help move people out of crowded city shelters when the pandemic struck. But some business owners, local officials and neighbors protested the decision to move the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) clients into a Renton Red Lion, citing shoplifting complaints and 911 calls.
DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone said hotel rooms “dramatically” decrease the stress of homelessness for people living in a shelter environment that’s crowded with mats on the floor.
“I think we need to consider what’s the alternative,” Malone added. “I don’t think anybody is satisfied with people living in tents or sleeping in doorways.”
The mayor’s proposal to build and lease new shelter space also coincides with the City Council’s decision to defund the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and outreach workers who had been tasked with making referrals to shelter as they cleared encampments.
But the mayor’s proposed budget doesn’t eliminate one of the core functions of the Navigation Team: coordinating outreach to shelter. The budget would keep the team’s field coordinators and system navigators — the Human Services Department workers who went to encampments — as well as some other administrative staff, Sixkiller said.
The new team’s job would still involve doing some outreach, but also working with the city’s outreach contractors and shelter providers. Absent from the team are the police officers that some City Council members had proposed be removed from the team earlier in the year.