Last fall, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office proposed using federal funds to open up 300 hotel rooms, create 125 new units of 24-hour shelter and invest in more rental assistance to get people living homeless off the streets and into permanent housing. The “shelter surge,” as officials called it, was expected to launch in December of 2020 using mostly federal funds. 

After two months of delays, last week the mayor’s office unveiled new details of that plan, and so far, it’s smaller than originally proposed, with 221 hotel spaces expected to open in March and 60 newly created 24-hour shelter beds. 

In the announcement’s wake, a debate has erupted about whether Durkan should push harder for federal money to make up the remaining third of promised shelter beds.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw 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.

A crux of the city’s plan is to use money in the form of “rapid rehousing” vouchers, which are intended to provide a quick pathway into housing for people who only need a short length of financial assistance, to move as many as 231 people who come into the new shelter spaces into more permanent housing.

Some homelessness services organizations have raised concerns, however, that rapid rehousing funds may not be appropriate for people who will end up in these new shelter spaces. Similar shelters have a large number of people with mental-health or substance-use disorders, and who may have trouble paying housing costs after subsidies disappear. 

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At a Wednesday afternoon City Council meeting, Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Dan Strauss asked the mayor’s office who these spaces were intended for — people with some of the highest needs and most visibility on Seattle streets or people who needed less support? 

“Our goal here is sort of a both/and,” Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller said. “Individuals who have high-acuity needs as well as others.” 

King County’s rapid rehousing programs have seen mixed results: Between October 2019 and October 2020, 9% of households that actually found places to rent with the vouchers became homeless again within a year, according to data from King County. People with lower incomes have tended to fare worse in the program. 

“We said to the city at the beginning that their intention to pair rapid rehousing with this approach was likely misguided,” said Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Alison Eisinger.  

Noting neighbors frustrated with growing encampments, the thousands of people living outside amid a pandemic and winter weather, “the people of this city deserve a more intelligent, strategic, organized, collaborative response than is currently happening,” Eisinger said. 

Mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said that rapid rehousing was just one of a range of responses in the homelessness system, including housing with supportive services.

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“It has proven success helping people regain housing and avoiding recurring episodes of homelessness,” Hightower said in a statement.

The city has also run into some obstacles in finding hotel partners. 

Seattle officials reached out to 100 hotels to partner on the initiative, and eventually landed on nine that were “viable and willing to discuss our program,” Hightower said. Of those nine, officials narrowed down the pool to two hotels — the Kings Inn in Belltown and the Executive Hotel Pacific in downtown Seattle — based on location, costs and how well they could accommodate clients and handle social service programming. The city plans to lease both locations for up to a year.  

The Chief Seattle Club will operate 66 rooms at the Kings Inn shelter, and the city is on track to finalize a contract with the Low Income Housing Institute, the nonprofit responsible for running nearly all of the city’s tiny home villages, to oversee 155 rooms at the Executive Hotel Pacific. 

The city said that several hotels that officials reached out to were already working with other service providers to shelter people living homeless or had enough business to sustain them without a city contract.  

But some hotel owners also expressed hesitation about participating in a sheltering program for reasons that included “community and neighborhood concerns, concern of wear and tear to the hotel, media reports of negative impacts to hotels, uncertainty as to when tourism would swing up again and the challenge of stopping and then re-starting marketing in an already difficult environment,” Hightower said.  

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Seattle’s push to shelter people in hotels comes almost a year after King County paid to put hundreds of homeless people up in hotels at the onset of the pandemic; with the 470 hotel rooms the county is paying for, and more than 100 initially paid for by federal CARES Act money, there are now more than 800 homeless people staying in hotels in King County. 

But these rooms are expensive: King County is burning through millions a month to keep them open, and isn’t sure where to find money for them after March 31. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse many of the expenses related to the hotel rooms, but only if they put up people at risk of catching a severe case of COVID-19, King County’s emergency management director told The Seattle Times earlier this month. 

The hotels have also at times caused controversy: Seattle’s downtown Morrison Hotel shelter, where some of the most vulnerable people in the county stayed, was relocated to nearby Renton on the county dime and has caused division in the town. After businesses and residents complained about a sharp rise in 911 calls, the Renton City Council passed an emergency zoning ordinance that restricted future shelters and required the hotel shelter to empty out by the end of this year. 

But the hotels have proven good for many of the people staying in them: A study conducted by University of Washington researchers found that they had not only reduced the spread of COVID-19, but improved residents’ sleep, hygiene and mental health. The hotel shelters have also produced fewer fights and 911 calls than at crowded congregate shelters, more exits to permanent housing and indications of more engagement with housing services for homeless people. 

At the Wednesday City Council meeting, Herbold questioned whether the city still planned to expand to 300 rooms.  

“The plan is to get these two hotels up and running and we will continue to evaluate additional hotel possibilities,” Sixkiller said. 

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Sixkiller said the city also plans to continue to look for places to create or increase 24-hour shelter.

City Council members have argued that should be easy, because President Joe Biden has directed FEMA to reimburse 100% of the costs associated with responding to the pandemic. The city, which currently doesn’t have a cash-flow issue, could just front the money and hope FEMA will reimburse it in the future.

But that, too, has been a source of friction between the mayor’s office and the City Council: After the news site PubliCola said Friday that Seattle would be “rejecting” an “offer” from the Biden administration to pay for the hotels, two Council members, as well as Chief Seattle Club head and mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk, reacted with outrage that the city wasn’t seeking “100% reimbursement” for shelters from the federal government.

“These proposed federal dollars are at the necessary scale to address what can be likened to a house on fire,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said in a press release. “Our current response is a bucket of water in comparison, and we need a fire hose. It is imperative we tap this resource.”

In a responding statement, Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, pointed out that the city is in fact seeking reimbursement from FEMA for food supplies and tiny home villages, and that some of the most expensive parts of hotel sheltering, like behavioral health services, are not reimbursed by FEMA.

“The budget chair’s statements are incorrect, irresponsible and do a huge disservice to the unrelenting work city workers have done to support the most vulnerable residents of our city,” Formas said in a statement. “Her so called outrage may be best used seeking facts before tweeting.”   

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In September, FEMA tightened restrictions around whose hotel rooms it would pay for, so opening more and hoping for FEMA money would be a risk, said Julie Dingley, fiscal and policy manager at the City Budget Office.

“What they don’t want us to do is, ‘Oh, this is just free money, so we’re going to do something that we wouldn’t have already otherwise done,'” Dingley said.

However, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said the city should be expanding efforts to open more hotel shelters even beyond these new hotel rooms and apply for FEMA money for whatever can be reimbursed.

“The reason that there’s tents all over the city is because of COVID, and the reason we can’t remove them is because of the CDC guidelines,” Lewis said. “So we should be exploring every single way to get people inside.”