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.