COVID Cases in Homeless Facilities Are Mostly Happening In Mass Shelters, Not Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square. DESC has reported five COVID-19 cases among residents or staff, three of them in congregate shelters such as this one.

On Monday, King County Public Health announced that 112 people experiencing homelessness and staff at facilities serving homeless King County residents had tested positive for COVID-19—a number that could underrepresent the number of COVID-positive people living in mass shelters, since not everyone is being tested. According to Public Health spokesman Keith Seinfeld, between 1,400 and 1,500 people “associated with homeless shelters” have been tested, including both shelter guests and staff. For comparison, King County’s total homeless population is more than 12,500. COVID-19 tallies rely on self-reporting by shelters, some of which have been reluctant to provide accurate information about how many people staying in their shelters have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past.

A closer look at the detailed numbers, which King County Public Health provided in response to a request, reveals that roughly 70 of the 91 “assigned” cases (that is, cases that are tied to a specific service or facility) occurred among clients of large mass shelters, in which dozens or hundreds of people sleep together in one room and share restrooms and common spaces, not to mention air.

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Twenty cases, out of 91 cases the county has linked to specific sites, were reported at Catholic Community Services’ overflow shelter at the King County Airport, and another 21 occurred at the Lazarus Day Center, also run by CCS. Overall, CCS’s shelters, accounted for 50 of the 91 cases tied to specific facilities. The county did not identify which cases were shelter guests and which were staff, but a recent Centers for Disease Control review of three Seattle shelters with “clusters” of COVID-19 had an equal proportion of cases among shelter residents and staff, although the total number of residents with the virus was higher.

The city of Seattle has responded to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness largely by moving people from existing shelters into larger spaces, like the Miller and Garfield Community Centers, where they can sleep six feet apart. (The mayor’s office has consistently referred to these expansion sites as “new” shelter beds, but they are not.) Two additional “redistribution” shelters, at the Loyal Heights Community Center and the Southwest Teen Life Center, were expected to open in late March but are no longer scheduled to open; according to an HSD spokesman, service providers “haven’t asked us to use them.” 

“If I wouldn’t put my [92-year-old] mother there, or my brother, or my 23-year-old daughter, then it’s just not okay.” — Dr. Colette Auerswald, UC Berkeley

HSD staffers who have been working at shelters are reportedly being redeployed to other work assignments that are also related to COVID response. I’ve reached out to the city for more details about why this is happening, but the result may be shelters staffed by Parks and Recreation department staff and patrolled by private security, in addition to staff from the organizations that run the shelters.

The CDC issued guidance back in March suggesting that shelters try to keep people’s heads at least six feet apart while they sleep, by having them sleep six feet apart and head to toe if necessary. “The six-foot guideline seemed like a good idea at the time,” Dr. Colette Auerswald. from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, said during a call with reporters today, but in the month since that guidance was released it has become obvious that mass shelters are unsafe. Nonetheless, the six-foot spacing guidance remains an official CDC recommendation as of today.

“If I wouldn’t put my [92-year-old] mother there, or my brother, or my 23-year-old daughter, then it’s just not okay” for homeless people either, Auerswald continued. “People need to get out of congregate shelters.” Auerswald is the lead author of a new report recommending that local jurisdictions provide people experiencing homelessness with hotel rooms or other places to shelter in place for the duration of the crisis.

9 thoughts on “COVID Cases in Homeless Facilities Are Mostly Happening In Mass Shelters, Not Housing”

  1. Huge fan of your work on homelessness and City politics. Just wanted to register that I don’t think houses are ‘facilities’ and if you are living in a house/apartment you are not homeless, so the headline doesn’t sit well with me.

    1. Every location on the list is a facility for people currently experiencing homelessness; some are not congregate shelters, but transitional housing, SROs, and other types of homeless housing that is not categorized in HMIS or any city, county, state, or federal system as “housing.” I’m sensitive and well aware of the many fine distinctions among types of housing, and obviously an SRO is preferable to a mass shelter, but it is still categorized as a temporary living space for people experiencing homelessness, which is why the county and all the stories you have read about this announcement have referred to these sites as places for people currently experiencing homelessness. NONE of them are conventional houses or apartments in which people can live independently.

      (ETA: By SRO I am referring to places like the Aloha Inn.)

      1. Ok, so the headline doesn’t make any sense, since no homeless people are in housing.

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