Months after the shutdown of Seattle’s only sobering center, a place of last resort for people homeless and intoxicated, King County officials have indicated a replacement will come — but it’s not clear where, and it won’t be in time for winter.
The county will not move the facility to the Georgetown neighborhood as it had previously planned, after efforts to relocate the center there sparked a neighborhood backlash.
“The long-term solution is not happening this winter,” said Leo Flor, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS).
That means this will be the first winter in 20 years that there won’t be a low-barrier, walk-in shelter for people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol to the point that sometimes they need medical oversight while they sleep it off.
The Dutch Shisler sobering center in South Lake Union, which served that purpose for two decades, also offered connections to treatment and case management. But the nonprofit that owned the sobering center, Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC), sold the building in 2018 for more than $17 million to a company that plans on turning it into a 10-story office tower in the heart of Amazon’s headquarters.
The sale launched a saga of finger-pointing: CPC bought an old church building in Georgetown, but angry neighbors pushed back, arguing their neighborhood was far from the rest of the downtown services people using the sobering center would need. Members of the Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance filed a land-use petition and complaint to halt the opening of the center, claiming the city of Seattle didn’t do a thorough environmental review before approving a construction permit for the change in use.
Amid the neighborhood debate, CPC was acquired by Sound Health, a nonprofit substance use and mental health treatment provider. Though CPC had a legal obligation with the county to keep a sobering center open year-round, Sound did not. A spokesperson for the nonprofit said there was “a great deal of inadequate funding attached” to the sobering center (the county and city of Seattle fund sobering jointly, at $1.2 million a year).
CPC did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the last few months, county leaders have been negotiating with CPC to reopen the sobering center and ensure that proceeds from the old facility’s sale still went toward planned construction of an 80-unit permanent supportive-housing project in Shoreline, operated by Catholic Community Services. Permanent supportive housing is considered among the most effective ways to get chronically homeless people off the streets, but it’s also one of the most expensive.
This month, the county and CPC came to an agreement: CPC will sell the Georgetown property and give a projected $2.8 million from that sale to the county. That money, combined with about $3 million from the Dutch Shisler sale, will be enough for King County to open a new and better facility, Flor said, which is planned for downtown Seattle.
“We’re excited about taking a model that worked for 20 years and improving on it,” Flor said.
Dave Bricklin, land-use attorney for the Georgetown residents, said his clients are dismissing their complaint.
“I’m glad the county’s backing up and doing it the right way now,” Bricklin said. “I don’t think they did a very good site-selection process the first time; I think they wouldn’t have ended up in Georgetown if they had. I think it was convenient, I think it was a quick fix, and I think as we learn in life a quick fix is not always the way to go.”
In the meantime, this winter the county’s sober van will continue taking people either to other shelters that will accept them or to emergency rooms.
History suggests there is a need: Last winter, when the region experienced a historic series of snowstorms, the sobering center averaged between 50 and 60 people a night sleeping there. The county doesn’t know where most of those people are going now, Flor said, but he thinks some will go to the other shelters that have opened in the past year, such as the one across the street from Harborview’s emergency room, at Harborview Hall.
But he predicted not everyone will find their way inside.
“I think some of the folks are also likely going unsheltered,” Flor said.
This can have deadly consequences. Fifteen people the King County Medical Examiner presumes were homeless died from intoxication or hypothermia between January and March last year.