It was a decision that turned heads: King County Executive Dow Constantine said in October, with winter bearing down, that the county would open an unused wing of the King County jail downtown as a homeless shelter.
“These actions will help bring more people inside for the winter, and provide more outreach to those living on sidewalks, and in doorways, and parks,” Constantine said in a press release, promising around 300 new beds by the end of the year.
It is now spring, and on Thursday the county announced the shelter would finally open on Sunday, with 40 beds.
Alex Fryer, Constantine’s spokesman, said the county had to do an extensive, $2 million remodel, including a new entrance for 911 responders’ easy access, new sinks, paint and laundry, and fiber-optic cable for a new computer and phone system, allowing the shelter to be totally separate from the jail.
The county and the shelter operator that will contract to run the shelter, the nonprofit DESC, also talked with advocates and people who have experienced homelessness to make sure people staying in the shelter wouldn’t feel like they were incarcerated. Operating the shelter will cost around $1.8 million over the next two years, the county says.
This will be an “enhanced” shelter, in the model of the city’s Navigation Center, and DESC will be reaching out and referring people who have been on the streets longer, who can get help at the shelter with mental-health or substance-use issues.
“We wanted to make sure it was responsible and respectful,” Fryer said.
But these delays aren’t new for the county: After the Metropolitan King County Council earmarked money for a shelter at Harborview Hall, it took more than two years for the 100-bed shelter to actually open.
There were also concerns from the jail’s corrections officers represented by the King County Corrections Guild. The guild president, Sgt. Dave Richardson, said the county should have realized the changes necessary to house homeless people in the same building as inmates would take a long time.
The union still has safety concerns. They say they need the space for inmates, and are concerned there will be no screening of homeless people who come into the same building. Richardson said he’s concerned about the risk for a repeat of the December shooting at the city’s Navigation Center shelter, especially with a thinly stretched corps of corrections officers working massive amounts of overtime, as The Seattle Times reported in February.
“Dow (Constantine)’s saying they wanted to hurry up and get it open because of the weather being so bad didn’t pan out,” Richardson said. “We’re past that point, but we’re still opening.”
Homeless advocate Tim Harris, who had a public about-face in October over this issue — originally decrying the idea and later advocating for it — is still glad it’s opening.
“My bottom line is that we need as much low-barrier shelter as we can put up, and better late than never,” Harris said.