What’s the first thing you do when you’ve been living in a shelter for months or years, and suddenly you get your own hotel room?

For the 10 men who left Bellevue’s men’s shelter three weeks ago to stay in a Motel 6, it was take a shower or a bath — one said he’s been taking a bubble bath twice a day.

After that, it’s T.V. or movies. One man watched Jim Carey and Steve Carrell comedies all night.

For Larry Felder, it was a hot shower, and then NBC News, to get updates on coronavirus.

Felder didn’t mind the depressing news; he had a bed.

“I got rest. I didn’t have to worry about all the people in the shelter — arguments and fights,” Felder said. “It’s been peaceful.”

Larry Felder, one of 10 homeless men moving into a motel in Bellevue as part an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, gives a wave and a smile before entering his room. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Larry Felder, one of 10 homeless men moving into a motel in Bellevue as part an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, gives a wave and a smile before entering his room. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Felder was part of the first wave: Early next week, King County will move nearly 400 homeless people out of shelters in Bellevue, Kent, Federal Way and Renton to hotels in the area, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center is moving 200 people from its Seattle shelters to a hotel in Renton,  with county money. The county said it was still finalizing agreements with the hotels, and did not immediately provide details about how much the effort would cost.

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“These are not isolation and quarantine facilities,” an email from public health said. “The people who are moving are presumed to be well.”

Across the country, cities have been trying to move their homeless populations who don’t yet have COVID-19, but would be especially vulnerable to it, out of crowded shelters and into hotels sitting empty because of lack of travel.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates 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.

Los Angeles County has cobbled together a list of 2,000 motel rooms for homeless people at risk of getting coronavirus, some of which the state will fund. The state of California itself is leasing close to 4,000 hotel rooms for homeless people in its seven largest counties. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has pushed the mayor to set aside thousands of hotel rooms for the city’s homeless people. 

And more cities will follow, according to Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The federal relief bill President Trump signed over the weekend put $4 billion into homeless assistance, which cities can use for hotel rooms for homeless people.

Hotels that weeks ago were hesitant to contract with cities, counties and states are now “desperate,” Berg said, based on conversations with shelter providers in parts of the country.

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“If you have money from the county, and you want to put somebody up, hotel owners are very eager to talk to you,” Berg said. “It’s a win-win sort of situation — because otherwise these hotels are just sort of going to go out of business.”

But while other cities in the nation and the area have leaned heavily on this option, Seattle city government has yet to. Seattle city councilmembers have talked about doing it, but so far there’s been no action.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has booked an entire hotel downtown for first responders to live in, but hasn’t pushed similarly for spots in hotels for homeless people: A spokeswoman for Durkan wrote in a statement the amount of resources it would take to properly care for homeless people living in hotels is prohibitive.

“Any new resources that the City, County or service providers bring on must include new facilities, staffing, funding, and other wrap-around resources such as meals and hygiene,” Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Durkan, wrote in an email. “It also needs to be connected to our public health response — for example, when individuals start showing symptoms, it is critical that providers can connect with public health officials to assess for quarantine and isolation.”

Hightower pointed out that nonprofits’ staffing is stretched thin, and emergency responders don’t require extra resources and services. Instead, Durkan has been calling on federal and local governments for money and resources for “mass sheltering,” although it’s not clear exactly what shape that would take.

Seattle has opened a lot of its own shelter spaces: Two weeks ago, in one of the largest local expansions of shelter space, the city opened hundreds of spaces in Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion and community centers around the city.

Services for homeless people in hotels are important, Berg said.

“Taking somebody in, sticking them in a motel room, and ignoring them is of course not the thing to do,” Berg said. “Who’s going to provide security, who’s going to do the social work stuff, who’s going to do medical staffing?”

But in sheltering situations, even when homeless people are more than 6 feet apart, they’re often using the same bathrooms and showers, which increases potential for spread of the disease, Berg said.

There’s also been talk at Seattle city council, but no apparent movement yet. During a council briefing last month, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis noted laws in Massachusetts and New York allowed for officials to book surplus hotel rooms for homeless people.

Lewis said he wanted “to explore what that might look like locally as a strategy to get people off the streets and get them inside right away.”

“There might be a way to use surplus hotel demand in the city,” he said, describing the idea as “something to dig into.”

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda also expressed interest, saying she was talking to stakeholders about what the city might do to “keep our hotels afloat” while also moving seniors “out of more crowded living situations.” Mosqueda noted that an effort by the city would involve logistics related to meal delivery and cleaning.

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That was nearly two weeks ago, and as of press time neither Lewis nor Mosqueda had responded to requests for information on any plans they’ve developed since.

Partnerships haven’t always worked: The Kimpton Alexis Hotel, which is consistently ranked as a top Seattle hotel by Condé Nast Traveler and last year completed a $19 million renovation, hosted two dozen homeless residents of the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s (DESC) main shelter for only three days before management notified DESC they wouldn’t be continuing.

I think they just were uncomfortable with the people we serve who are staying there,” Dan Malone, executive director of DESC, said.

Brandyn Hull, a spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, said the stay came to an end by mutual agreement, “allowing us to prepare for first responders and medical personnel who we anticipate will need lodging during this difficult time.” 

“Due to the recommendation of our city and state leaders we have moved to a minimal staffing model and limited inventory,” Hull wrote in an email, “and our remaining employees are on hand to help serve the people fighting this on the front lines.”

The hotel doesn’t yet have an agreement with the city of Seattle, but at the Executive Hotel Pacific the city is paying as much as $190 a night, whereas DESC was paying Kimpton discounted rates, according to Noah Fay, housing director at DESC, although he wouldn’t say how much.

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Around eight people who were staying in the hotel had to move back into the shelter, while the others went to other hotels, Malone said.

Many of the hotels that have worked with nonprofits in the past — whose homeless clients often don’t have I.D., a requirement for many hotels — are booked full, said Elizabeth Dahl, executive director of Aurora Commons, a drop-in center for low-income and homeless people in North Seattle.

“We’re trying to preemptively quarantine people,” Dahl said. “There’s not a lot of options of where to send people right now.”

Staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this story.

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