Library Closures Leave Homeless Patrons Stranded, Safe Consumption Sites See Support, and a MAGA Bill Reveals State GOP Priorities

University branch library, two hours before closing time on Friday.

1. Of all the drastic changes to daily life announced last week in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the closure of all Seattle Public Library branches may have the most profound impact on the city’s most vulnerable people—those without places to go to during the day, either because they’re completely unsheltered or because they stay in shelters that are only open at night. For people experiencing homelessness, libraries are a haven—warm places to be, but also places to charge phones, get online, and be in the company of other people.

The library’s 27 branches are also places where people without homes or offices can wash their hands and use the restroom, making them a critical resource during daytime hours in a city where publicly accessible restrooms are few and (literally) far between. Without access to libraries, more people will be forced to use public spaces as makeshift restrooms. The fact that people urinate and defecate in public has an easy explanation and a simple solution: When restrooms are available, people use them.

The city has long been aware of this. In 2015, when then-mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness, the civil proclamation he signed specifically identified the lack of access to restrooms and hand washing facilities as a problem that needed to be addressed. Four years later, the city auditor issued a scathing report slamming the city for failing to address the problem; among other findings, the report noted that UN standards for refugee camps would require about 224 toilets that are accessible 24 hours a day; instead, the city has just six 24/7 restrooms and about 100 locations that provide restroom access during limited hours. 

When I’ve asked about the lack of public restrooms in the past, the Human Services Department has pointed me to this interactive map, which shows every location in the city where theoretically public restrooms are located. But many of these sites are open only during limited hours (some only a few hours a week), or are only accessible to specific populations, such as women or youth. The city will keep community center and parks restrooms open during daytime hours for the time being, but those are of limited utility to people who aren’t already in those parks and near those community centers. Additionally, one great thing about a library is that it’s a place where people can use the restrooms and spend time without having their presence questioned. Without libraries, people lose access to both those things.

Obviously, I’m not saying the libraries should have stayed open during the pandemic; they had to close, because they bring people into close proximity and because library materials are ideal vectors for the virus to spread. What I am saying is that if the city had done more a long time ago to meet people’s immediate needs—like opening more public restrooms instead of spending resources creating defensive interactive maps that suggest no problem exists—this aspect of the crisis might have been averted.

2. On Saturday, King County identified three new locations for people at high risk for coronavirus complications and for those who need to be isolated or quarantined because they have contracted the novel coronavirus:

• The Arrivals Hall at the King County International Airport is now being used as a shelter for the men (most of them over 55) who usually stay at the St. Martin De Porres shelter in Seattle.

• A county-owned parking lot at Eastgate in Bellevue, where “a fully self-contained tent, with flooring and heat, has been purchased for use as an isolation and recovery location,” according to the county. The tent will open next week.

• A Holiday Inn in Issaquah, which the county will lease and use either to provide medical support to vulnerable populations or isolate people “who do not require significant social support services.” Yesterday, after a homeless man who was being isolated at a county-owned motel left the facility against medical advice, the county changed its policy so that only people who do not need social services will stay at hotels.

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3. A recent poll of Seattle voters found that 61 percent support the idea of supervised drug consumption sites—a strong margin for an idea that has been continually sidelined despite a unanimous endorsement from the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Task Force in 2016. Supervised consumption sites, which are common in many European countries, offer safe spaces for drug users to use under medical supervision. The goal of these sites is to prevent deaths from overdose, provide basic services such as wound care; and link people with supportive services, including recovery support and treatment for those who are interested in quitting or reducing their use.

The poll, conducted by Oakland-based FM3 Research on behalf of the ACLU of Washington and other safe consumption advocates, also found that respondents were most responsive to the message that safe consumption sites save lives, and least responsive to the message that a safe consumption site in Seattle will cost just $3 million a year. As for negative messaging, respondents were most persuaded by the argument that “these sites will become a magnet for drug users throughout the region and even the country [a]nd drug dealers will know just where to find their buyers,” and least persuaded by the argument that consuming drugs like heroin is illegal.
The funding for the poll came from money that was left over from the campaign against Initiative 27, which would have banned safe consumption sites in King County. Mark Cooke, the policy director for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, says he’s encouraged to see that “support for this kind of high-level intervention is very popular.” The city put $1.3 million in the 2018 budget to study and stand up a supervised consumption site, but that effort has since stalled, leaving advocates wondering whether the idea will happen during the current presidential administration—or ever. 
I think advocates who have been working on this for years now are a little frustrated that there hasn’t been more progress,” Cooke says. “We want to restart the conversation.”
4. As state legislators scrambled to provide funds to respond to the coronavirus outbreak before the legislature ended this week, eight Senate Republicans had something more important on their minds—repealing every bill the state legislature passed in 2020, including COVID-19 relief funds, in order to “restore freedom, return the right of conscience, empower parents, treat all citizens equally, repeal tax increases on middle class families, and defend the right of individuals to protect themselves and their families.”
Fortunately for those caring for sick family members or coping with job loss, the stunt proposal—sponsored by Sens. Doug Ericksen, Phil Fortunato, Shelly Short, Judy Warnick, Randi Becker, Jim Honeyford, and Ann Rivers—will not be “making Washington great again” this year.

4 thoughts on “Library Closures Leave Homeless Patrons Stranded, Safe Consumption Sites See Support, and a MAGA Bill Reveals State GOP Priorities”

  1. At my local Safeway this morning a normal looking man asked for a few dollars for food. Then he walked over to his ordinary looking car after asking other shoppers and started sneezing. Likely has not been able to work and ran out of money for food and gas. At least he got a little help from us.

    I bet there are many more like him.

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