Downtown Seattle’s shelter of last resort for intoxicated people shut down last month with no replacement, creating a gap that’s put more chronically homeless people on the streets or in emergency room beds downtown.
It’s unclear when the replacement will open. King County, which funded the Dutch Shisler Sobering Center, is negotiating with local nonprofit Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC), which owned the building but sold it last year. CPC planned on moving the sobering center to Georgetown, but was met with resistance from residents and then, a lawsuit from the Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance.
“CPC has an obligation to provide us with a building,” said Leo Flor, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services. “They are in default of that obligation.”
CPC declined to comment. The county is negotiating with CPC but could not give a timeline for the opening of a new center. The county didn’t dismiss the possibility of suing CPC for the breach of contract.
Meanwhile, many people who would normally sleep in the center are now going to Seattle’s downtown ERs, sleeping in an emergency bed simply to sober up, or going back to the sidewalks with other rough sleepers. That number doesn’t yet appear to be high, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association, but as winter approaches, the number of intoxicated people who need to sleep inside will increase, past trends show.
Harborview has seen 28 patients in the last two weeks — around one to four a night — who would have gone to the sobering center. Virginia Mason has seen a similar increase.
And in “a system that runs at pretty high volume all the time, any impact is significant,” said Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director at Harborview’s Emergency Department. The average cost of a bed per night in Harborview is $2,000, while at the sobering center it was $68.70.
“We’re certainly concerned about it,” said Mitchell. “The sobering center has historically served a key role in the safety net.”
Since back in the days when the neighborhood was mostly warehouses, the sobering center in Denny Triangle north of downtown Seattle has provided a mat and a roof to thousands of people homeless shelters won’t take because they’re too inebriated, too difficult when they become sober or incontinent. It served over 1,500 people last year, and King County paid almost $80,000 in rent to CPC. A different nonprofit contracts to staff the center.
Now, at a time when Seattle’s public hospitals are already bending under the weight of rising chronic homelessness, and street homelessness is at the center of public debate in Seattle, the disappearance of the sobering center has diverted homeless people to ERs simply so they can sleep until sober — or to the sidewalk.
“For us, these patients occupy bed space and time to go through their sobering process that could otherwise be utilized for other emergency patients,” said Dr. Joshua Zwart, who runs Virginia Mason’s emergency department.
When CPC sold the sobering center, the nonprofit bought a replacement, the Korean Central Baptist Church building in Georgetown, for $3 million.
The move to the Georgetown building has been slowed by neighbors who pushed back hard, showing up at multiple neighborhood forums chanting “just push pause.” Members of the Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance filed a land-use petition and complaint, claiming the city of Seattle didn’t do a thorough environmental review before approving a construction permit for the change in use.
They also argue that the new location is too far away from downtown and the services many of these people need. It’s more than four miles away from Pioneer Square.
“The rich people are taking over here”
It was Friday night at the sobering center, and normally the building would be filling up with people looking for a place to sleep.
But instead it’s quiet, and the lights are out. A homeless man named Ken, who asked that his last name not be published, walked up with a duffel bag over his shoulder, tried the door and looked inside. He’d been coming to the sobering center on and off since 2000. He said he’s homeless because of drugs and alcohol, but his mother, Margaret Green, said he also struggles with mental illness; this is the place that will take him when no one else will.
“I don’t know where to go,” said Ken, who said he’s been homeless for 30 years in Seattle.
The sobering center, opened in 1998, was designed to take pressure off emergency rooms and police: When someone calls 911 about a publicly intoxicated person downtown, the call gets directed to the sober van, and the sober van drivers would persuade the person to go to the sobering center. The center was named after Dutch Shisler, the driver of King County’s first “detoxification van,” who was in recovery himself.
Today, it’s surrounded by Amazon buildings. In December, Community Psychiatric Clinic sold the center for $17.25 million to a company that plans on turning it into a 10-story office tower with underground parking.
On the night the center closed, a group of homeless men across the street drank, smoked and talked about where they were going to sleep that night. Abdi Hassan, 41, gestured to the high-rises under construction around him.
“My personal opinion is that the rich people are taking over here and they’re trying to ship us out to Georgetown,” Hassan said. He’s been staying at the sobering center off and on for five years. He said he left his last job in 2013 after racial harassment, and spiraled into drugs and alcohol.
“The van drivers — they said we’ve got to call 911 and they’ll take us to an emergency shelter,” said Hassan.
Vinnie, a 59-year-old homeless man, pointed across the street at the door of the Recovery Cafe.
“I don’t have nowhere to sleep tonight,” he said. “I’ll probably stay there.”
Other homeless people may simply disappear — like Ken, whose mother hasn’t heard from him since last week. He went to Harborview, she said, demanding treatment, but once he was on his way to treatment he grew violent and staff had to let him out of the van. His mother hasn’t heard from him since.
“I’m just sick in my stomach,” Green said.