Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Thursday that she would quickly use her public health emergency authority to expand shelter capacity for homeless people amid the rapidly evolving COVID-19 outbreak.
Within the next two to three weeks, the city will add enough units to house up to an additional 100 people at three sites.
That includes two tiny house villages: one an existing tiny house village site in South Lake Union, and another, new village on a church-owned property at 22nd Ave and East Cherry Street.
The city will also be adding shelter space at a former Evergreen treatment facility in Bitter Lake, owned by the Low Income Housing Institute.
“We know we need to take additional measures to bring more of our unsheltered community inside,” Durkan said in a written statement. “Our neighbors experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, and as a city, region, and country we must act with urgency to address the ongoing impacts of this public health crisis.”
Seattle’s homeless community comprises a number of people who are vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections. During last year’s annual survey of King County’s homeless population, 27% reported a chronic health condition.
None of the Seattle sites are intended to be used as quarantine or isolation facilities, according to the city.
Both the Bitter Lake facility and the new tiny house village site in the Central Area were already part of city discussions on expanding enhanced shelter space and the villages, according to Human Services Department spokesperson Will Lemke. Just last month, the Seattle City Council voted to dramatically increase the number of tiny house villages allowed in the city. Villages are often a preferred shelter option for many living outside.
The city will continue to evaluate whether to open additional shelter space as the COVID-19 emergency unfolds, Lemke said.
Earlier this week, upon issuing his own emergency declaration in response to the outbreak, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that the county would be deploying 14 modular units it had already purchased, as well as dormitory-style buildings across the county to quarantine people who don’t have home addresses. The county additionally announced the purchase of a Kent motel for patient isolation.
Both actions drew protest. Though not intended for homeless patients specifically, the motel stirred objections from Kent officials including Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, who worried “the coronavirus is a pretext for the siting of a longer-term homelessness or quarantine facility in Kent.”
State Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat representing the majority-minority area of White Center, criticized the county’s decision to place some of the modular housing in his district, saying it “conveys a message about whose safety we most value in our society.”
Though no COVID-19 cases have been reported in homeless patients, the idea that homeless people might spread the illness “has an insidious undertone developing,” Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC) Executive Director Dan Malone wrote in an email.
Just this morning, a DESC staffer said her neighbors had expressed concern about her spreading the illness because of her work with homeless clients, Malone wrote.
“Homeless people are at greater risk for developing more severe illness if they become ill, which means they need more protection,” Malone wrote. “The idea that they would be assumed to put other people at risk misunderstands what is happening and I believe is rooted in stigma about people experiencing homelessness in the first place.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the location of a new tiny house village that will add shelter capacity. The location is at 22nd Avenue and East Cherry Street.