At 6 p.m. on a recent Friday, Aaron Guyton sat on a park bench in the middle of Pioneer Square, where the only people around appeared to be living homeless, like him.
Guyton left a downtown shelter the previous day, when, he says, he saw a cup of urine in the doorway.
“I said, the [expletive] sidewalk is better,” Guyton said. “Right here. This bench.”
Pioneer Square has always had its visibly homeless population, but right now, with downtown’s housed residents staying inside and weekday work crowds gone, street sleepers and shelter users are almost alone — besides those who still come downtown to help them.
“Being in Pioneer Square is surreal, because we are only seeing our homeless community,” Colleen Echohawk, who runs a drop-in center at Second Avenue and South Washington Street for Native people living homeless, told the Seattle City Council during a remote committee meeting on homelessness strategies recently, looking out the window of her day center.
“Literally the people left outside are the people left outside,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, in that same meeting.
For decades, the urban core of Seattle has been home to a high concentration of the county’s shelters, day centers and social service agencies. But the picture in Pioneer Square is just a more dramatic version of what’s playing out across the city and county: As coronavirus has closed businesses, it’s also forced nonprofits to hobble their services and take in few or no new clients, and as a result, homeless people’s options have swiftly evaporated.
“When we closed public spaces, both libraries and community centers, as well as those third places like coffee shops — what most of us lost was convenience and community,” Eisinger said. “What people without homes lost is the following: Access to a toilet … Access to clean drinking water. A place to plug their phones in … a place to sit down and rest… And really, access to anything that made it really tolerable to function as best you could without a home.”
The city announced Tuesday that it would reopen bathrooms at five library branches, including the Central Library downtown, on April 27. Four community centers are still open for some hours throughout the week, but the closest one to downtown is in Columbia City.
Eisinger’s coalition completed an assessment in early April of 37 day centers and hygiene centers in King County, and found fewer than half of them are now available to people on a walk-in basis, meaning someone can simply show up and use the bathroom. Four of the most centrally located have closed, and at least 11 are closed to new clients or only accept new clients when a client leaves.
At the ones that remain open to all, some require people to sign up for a time slot, and others only allow 15, 10 or even one client inside at a time to ensure social distancing, so the lines are long. In interviews, homeless downtown residents described sometimes spending hours waiting to get in.
The city of Seattle has installed “hygiene stations” — 26 portable toilets and 12 places to wash hands — around the city in the last few weeks, and its Navigation Team of police and outreach workers has distributed over 1,600 “hygiene kits” of soap, water and paper towels citywide, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.
But the impacts of other scaled-back operations downtown are visible. Trash cans are full; Echohawk said she stepped in feces on the way home the other day. One outreach worker reported relieving herself in the street because she couldn’t find a public bathroom during her shift.
Downtown clean teams with the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) reported cleaning up hundreds fewer human feces, animal feces and overfull trash cans from March 25 to April 13 than during the same period last year, but they’re working on a reduced schedule because of COVID-19.
For the people whose work now involves going out into the streets in protective personal equipment, it’s surreal, too — and many have had to make hard choices about whether they can still meet homeless people where they live.
Echohawk, the executive director of Chief Seattle Club, is one of those who had to make the terrible choice between keeping her center open — and potentially spreading the virus — and closing.
Echohawk was working in the center “in solidarity” with her frontline workers April 1 when she realized what she had to do.
She saw people drinking coffee, talking, sitting and standing too close to each other — despite the staff’s efforts to keep people apart. Many still didn’t have masks.
“Our population knows this location as a place for family and community,” Echohawk said. “The social distance wasn’t happening.”
She could almost feel that coronavirus was close by. Union Gospel Mission down the street had recently locked down after a positive case at another of its facilities, so many of the people who used to go there for meals were coming to Chief Seattle Club.
One woman was coughing and not covering her mouth; another had such serious mental illness she didn’t know what the coronavirus was.
Echohawk called the chair of Chief Seattle Club’s board, Annie Kirk.
“I am filled with dread,” Echohawk said. “Even though it goes to the antithesis of what our mission is, we have to shut this down.”
Now, her staff are working no more than two days a week each. They meet people outside to serve meals, hand out “art therapy” kits (one of the services they used to hold inside), and help them access the services that are still available.
At one of the places that is still open, the Compass Center, the wait outside was so long on a recent Friday that Gordon Ashley, 55, gave up. Ashley sleeps in alleys downtown and lives off food stamps and what he’s able to panhandle.
“You can only have 30 people in at a time,” Ashley said, sitting on the waterfront with a view of the Seattle Great Wheel, a sign saying “everything helps” next to him. “If you go outside to smoke a cigarette, you might spend an hour outside.”
Ashley had previously been panhandling at Pike Place Market, but there’s almost no traffic. So if he was going to get next to nothing, Ashley figured he might as well do it in the sun, by the water, instead of in the cold shadow of the market shops at First Avenue and Pike Street.
People like Ashley are the focus of Christopher Park’s work. Park is the outreach manager for MID, and his team of social workers covers 285 blocks of downtown, from Olympic Sculpture Park to CenturyLink Field, and I-5 to the waterfront. They wear N95 masks and try their best to social-distance, but sometimes clients get too close, Park said.
Park and Echohawk both have families they come home to, and close encounters during their workdays worry them both.
“You do feel anxious, because it’s contradictory to everything we are being told to do,” Echohawk said.
Every day, she comes home, takes her homemade mask off and leaves it outside to sit in the sun, disinfects everything she touches on entry, and throws her clothes in the washing machine.
Even with people like Park and Echohawk still working, homeless people are more disconnected than before: Many of the people Park sees don’t talk to their case manager anymore because they don’t have cell phones, he said.
The impacts of that disconnection and of the reduced services are tangible. Housing Connector, a service working with King County nonprofits to connect people with affordable housing, saw a 43% decrease in move-ins between February and March, according to Shkelqim Kelmendi, executive director.
And people who are in housing face challenges, too. One former client of Park’s called him recently, asking for rent money because he’d been laid off.
“Sometimes what stops people from making a change is they’ll say, ‘I tried that. I tried getting a job, but then I was laid off a month later. I tried getting housing, but then I got evicted. Why would I try?’” Park said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, with all this going on for people, some of this stuff isn’t affecting them in that way.”