There’s little to suggest that homelessness in the Seattle area has shrunk after a year of pandemic.
Which is why, at first glance, the numbers from King County’s homelessness system during COVID-19 may seem baffling. Nearly 23% fewer households accessed services like overnight shelter and drop-in day centers in 2020 than the year before, according to King County data.
The county hypothesizes that some people just aren’t asking for those services. Stimulus checks, increased rental assistance and an eviction moratorium have propped up those on the edge of stability. Others who are homeless may have pulled away from accessing services for fear of contracting COVID-19 through them.
But it’s also likely that the pandemic has introduced new disparities into an already fragmented system. Many people living homeless in King County have split into two camps: one where resources are now relatively rich, and one pulling people even further into the margins of society.
Andrea Longino falls into the second camp. She started out 2020 living in an RV in West Seattle, but as chaos in her life spun new turns during the pandemic, she found herself sleeping in a tent for the first time.
Nearly overnight, the in-person counseling Longino once relied on went remote and the library computers she used to try and organize her life were inaccessible. Public buildings and Starbucks locked their doors and largely stayed that way, so she still struggles to find restrooms. Her mental health has suffered because of these added stressors, Longino said. And over the last year, she’s watched people like her pushed into even more extreme circumstances.
“It’s like they’ve taken everything that people need in order to function away,” Longino said on a recent Thursday in the parking lot of the St. Vincent de Paul Georgetown Foodbank.
When the pandemic hit, entire shelter and outreach systems were restructured overnight. Those already in shelter got to stay longer and moved into hotels and other individualized units created to thin out overcrowding. At the same time, some outreach programs and day centers shuttered or refocused their work on people already indoors.
The new conditions to keep people safe provided unique stability rarely seen before at such a scale. Health care and social workers say they’re seeing clients thrive, a finding supported by a University of Washington study from last year that said people in the hotel shelters engaged more with service providers, reported feelings of safety and security and had higher rates of exits to permanent housing.
But the shift to creating better conditions for people already in shelter in some ways created “a system of winners and losers,” said University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn, who studied the impact of the thinning out of congregate shelters last summer and fall.
King County’s intervention for people in shelters was a success, Colburn said. But it also meant that there was less cycling through the shelter system, and people stayed in shelter longer, leaving other people to hack it outside with less help.
The right place at the right time
Nine miles southeast of the Georgetown food bank, Shantell Neal Duncan was enjoying his day off on a recent Wednesday afternoon, joking with friends in the parking lot of the Renton Red Lion.
Duncan started last year living at the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Queen Anne shelter, but when the pandemic broke out he, along with more than 200 others, were moved to the Renton hotel.
The two environments, he said, are night and day. He is less stressed by the stability of having his own personal space, knowing his things are protected and having more time to organize his life. The setting also enabled him to get a job at the Walmart store less than half a mile away.
“It gives you time to process, and you’ve got counselors, doctors, everything to help you if you want to do something, you can achieve it,” Duncan said looking past the gas station across the street toward a ridge of trees.
Dr. Russell Berg, a Harborview doctor who once paid weekly visits to the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter and now treats patients on-site at the Red Lion full time, said he’s seen changes in patients here that are nothing short of transformative.
“Wounds started healing, like, miraculously,” Berg said.
At the hotel, which allows people to stay 24/7, people can elevate their limbs, allowing injuries to heal, wash regularly and obtain the medications Berg prescribes. With on-site laundry service, private bathrooms, medication delivery and an on-site clinic, Berg said he’s watched a number of his patients go back into the workforce. This kind of shelter, he said, became “a great enabler of stability.”
But suddenly people who dropped into a shelter for a few nights a year or shelter-hopped were out of luck. The new stability means residents now stay longer in shelter, bottlenecking the ability to get a bed.
“If you were in the right place at the right time when all this started, you got one of the better places,” said Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. “And if you weren’t already in a congregate bed, you didn’t.”
“There were no services left”
Many people living outdoors are now almost entirely separated from the county’s homeless services system. Of 78 people living at one encampment located beneath an overpass in the Chinatown International District last year, just 40 were currently enrolled in the county’s homeless services data system, according to information collected by outreach workers.
The same outreach workers see another dynamic in the county data.
“That plunge [in households receiving services through the homelessness system] is an indicator that all of the services supporting people living outside shut down,” said Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH. “Their numbers dropped because there were no services left.”
Many people drew back out of fear, too, said Yvonne Nelson, a longtime outreach worker with REACH. They worried they’d get sick at shelters, not to mention existing anxieties and trauma about being around other people.
“Some people moved further away from eyesight because they weren’t sure whether people were going to be herded up and sent to some undisclosed place because they were exposed,” Nelson said.
REACH workers say, anecdotally, they’re seeing more tents in places they’ve never seen them before, and more people living in their vehicles who are recently homeless. A recent survey of tent camping found a 50% increase in the number of tents in some hot spots since the pandemic began.
Overall distress, outreach workers said, has increased.
“People are so stressed out and they were so unable to meet their own needs, there was a lot more desperation,” said Gale.
Finding a way forward
With a flood of new federal resources aimed at reducing homelessness, local leaders have unveiled several initiatives to bring people indoors.
Last fall, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a “shelter surge” that would open three new hotels to people who weren’t already inside, intended as a potential pipeline to a wave of new supportive housing being created this year. So far, two hotels have opened, and the city intends to open three new tiny house villages this summer. Last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine declared an ambitious $100 million plan to bring in 500 people off the street by year’s end and recently announced a plan to buy hotels to turn into housing for 1,600 people.
Seattle’s new hotel spaces added in late March, however, are already nearing capacity. One of the hotels, the Kings Inn, is completely full, and the other had just 20 out of 139 rooms vacant as of April 29.
The despair of the last year has done lasting damage to many who were living outside. December saw the highest monthly number of homeless deaths since 2018. The county has also been battling an outbreak of gastrointestinal infections among people living outdoors, fueled by a shortage of accessible restrooms and sources of clean, running water. Outreach workers say they’ve seen more young people doing street-based sex work in public and have seen an increase in public drug use.
Longino, who has bounced around the local homeless services system for six years, said the last year has been her hardest yet. She spends nights in her car with her 2-year-old red-nose pit bull mix, Justice.
She’s clear about what she needs to get her life on track, something that’s become closer in reach for many people inside today’s more resource-rich shelters: permanent housing.
“My goal is to get somewhere safe where I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do the next day,” Longino said. “I know once I get stability that everything will be OK.”