A report released Friday by three leading homelessness researchers estimates it would cost more than $11 billion nationally, and nearly $260 million in King County alone, to open up new space so people staying in shelters are 6 feet apart, to bring in everyone who’s unsheltered, and to isolate and quarantine anyone exhibiting symptoms.

Simply quarantining every homeless person who exhibits symptoms of coronavirus would cost more than $32.5 million in King County, the report says, and it estimates that nationally, without social distancing measures, 22,000 homeless people could require hospitalization, with nearly 3,500 deaths among the homeless population.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

“I’m not naive to the fact that this would be a major undertaking to do in short order,” said Dr. Dennis Culhane, one of the researchers who produced the study, “and would likely require the national disaster partners to be getting involved — like FEMA and the Red Cross.”

Culhane emphasizes the estimates are rough — he and the others completed them in 36 hours.

Even before coronavirus, America didn’t have space in shelters or respite for the thousands of homeless people who studies show are getting sicker and older. Now, desperate to unclog shelters so people can sleep 6 feet apart, King County providers at the epicenter of the epidemic are putting homeless clients up in motels, spreading into new spaces, and even, at one downtown Seattle shelter, turning homeless people away.

The federal government has spent billions of dollars in coronavirus-related expenditures, but none of it has been designated to specifically go toward isolation and quarantine for people who have no homes, despite the fact that the major hot spots of the virus, including Seattle, have among the highest homeless counts in the nation.

Advocates have been pushing hard for Congress to include money for sheltering in their coronavirus-relief bills. On Monday, more than 2,000 homeless-shelter providers, public-housing agencies and organizers across the country convened an online meeting to speak about local efforts to protect people who are homeless from coronavirus.


Listening in were representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The call started fairly restrained, but when Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, spoke, she announced her intention to “inject in this call, now, a sense of urgency that I don’t know how to do without also bringing a sense of fear … but I feel it’s appropriate.”

“We are behind where we need to be,” Eisinger said. “We need significant additional capacity and resources, and we need them yesterday.” That same day, COVID-19 claimed its first homeless victim, in Santa Clara County, California.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, which convened the meeting, is asking Congress to include $15.5 billion in its next coronavirus spending package, which Congress hopes to pass next week.

That much money is unlikely to get a signoff from Congress, according to Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution; she pointed out that HUD’s entire annual budget is $45 billion.


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There still hasn’t been a confirmed case of coronavirus among Washington’s homeless population as of this publication, but officials anticipate local cases could get as high as a thousand, according to the county Department of Community and Health Services. 

“It’s certainly a matter of moments,” said Dan Malone, who runs one of Seattle’s largest shelters, the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC).

DESC’s shelters have been spreading beds and mats on the ground 6 feet apart, opening up new spaces such as Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center so that they can have enough room. They’ve put nearly 40 people up in motels with the help of philanthropic gifts, but they only have enough money for less than three weeks, Malone said. 

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission’s men’s shelter has had to cut its capacity by more than half, turning away nearly a hundred men a night as of Tuesday.

More than space, even, staffing is a major concern, according to Leo Flor, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), especially as staffers exposed to the virus will be forced to stay home.

“The key constraint on our ability to grow the system in this state of emergency,” Flor said, “is making sure that we have the people who can provide the services.”


The county has opened spaces for quarantine for people who don’t have homes — a motel in Kent, with 79 rooms for quarantine, and an additional 31 rooms that will come online early next week at a modular unit facility in Aurora, and 23 more rooms at a White Center modular unit facility that will open probably in early April, Flor said.

There is some money coming from the state: Washington State Department of Commerce announced to the state’s counties Monday that it’s making $30 million available for expanding shelters, buying more cleaning supplies or hiring more staff — or even things like leasing motel beds, according to Tedd Kelleher, senior managing director of housing assistance for the department.

The hope is to keep people without homes from clogging the state’s hospital beds.

We don’t need them taking up hospital beds if they just need a place to recover,” Kelleher said.

Ten million dollars comes from the state’s disaster-response account, and the other $20 million was just allocated during this winter’s legislative session — the state is simply making it readily available, only requiring a brief plan and the signoff of the local public health officer.

“The need for buildings and space is real,” Eisinger said on the call. “This is a situation where we are needing to find all the spaces right now.”