“We Just Can’t Do It.” Seattle Debates Moving Homeless People From Hotels Back to Mass Shelter

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, is insistent: The 200 or so men and women living in a Red Lion hotel in Renton since the COVID-19 pandemic began can’t go back to DESC’s main building downtown—not now, not ever.

“We definitely can’t just take all of those people and move them back to the main shelter at the end of August,” when the contract for the Red Lion ends, he says. “We just can’t do it.” DESC’s congregate shelters, which provide basic shelter in bunk beds for 383 people, serve some of the most medically vulnerable men and women in the city, and are “not in keeping with public health guidelines for [bed] spacing” during the pandemic, Malone says.

DESC hopes to purchase three motels, each with about 130 rooms, to permanently shelter those 383 people, and to put the Morrison Hotel—the historic Pioneer Square building that houses the organization’s main shelter, along with 190 units of permanent supportive housing—to other uses. If funding for this plan doesn’t come through, Plan B is returning about half of those people to reconfigured shelters at higher cost per bed than motels.

“We definitely can’t just take all of those people and move them back to the main shelter at the end of August. We just can’t do it.” —Daniel Malone, Downtown Emergency Service Center

“On a per-person basis, you’d end up spending a lot more to reuse the older facilities, because you’d have fewer people in them— and then, of course, you’d have just far fewer beds,” Malone says.

Several other shelter providers have moved people into hotels in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Salvation Army and Catholic Community Services. These groups will face a similar debate when funds for hotel rooms start running out.

COVID-19 outbreaks within the homeless population have been most common in mass shelters where people sleep a few feet apart and share common areas, restrooms, and other facilities. According to the King County Public Health department, which monitors an incomplete list of about 50 shelters around the county, most reported cases of COVID-19 among the county’s homeless population have occurred in congregate shelters, bolstering the argument for individual rooms. And with the World Health Organization reporting that COVID-19 can spread through the air in indoor settings, the argument for eliminating mass shelters, like the ones the city of Seattle has opened in community centers and public buildings to “de-intensify” existing shelters, is compelling.

City council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said last week that she was “frustrated” that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s request for federal funding for COVID-19 response did not include funding for additional beds in non-congregate settings, such as hotel rooms or dorms. Instead, the requests so far would pay for existing shelter beds that were funded through the original 2020 budget, which is facing significant midyear cuts.

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“I didn’t think we could be any more clear, from the council’s perspective, that non-congregate settings are a priority for us,” Mosqueda told city budget director Ben Noble during a briefing last week. “About three weeks, ago I said from the conversations that we were having with people who are providing direct services to the houseless, they are very fearful that they are just weeks from where the long-term care facilities were in the very beginning.

“What other types of funding are we looking into to create non-congregate shelters?” she asked “I’m still frustrated that we don’t have that answer from [the Human Services Department.”

Durkan has resisted proposals to fund non-congregate shelter options like hotels during the pandemic, despite ample evidence that not only do separate spaces prevent COVID-19 from spreading but have tremendous physical and psychological benefits to people accustomed to fighting over space, food, and showers in overcrowded congregate settings. (The Red Lion, for which the city provides some funding, has not had a single case of COVID-19).

“If the question is what happens in two or three months, more people will be alive [because] fewer people will have contracted COVID. Quite literally, that is how we will save lives.”—City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

“I think we need to be conscious of the sustainability of whatever system we set up,” Noble said last week. “The COVID pandemic isn’t going to disappear by any means… and I think there are difficult decisions to be made about how well we can manage some level of congregate shelter … versus moving folks singularly into non-congregate settings, and part of that is making sure we have sufficient and robust testing in these settings.”

“If the question is what happens in two or three months, more people will be alive [because] fewer people will have contracted COVID,” Mosqueda shot back. “Quite literally, that is how we will save lives.”

Malone, from DESC, says that for the hundreds of people who are supposed to leave their hotel rooms at the end of August, the future remains “very uncertain.” He’s hopeful that the county, which secured the hotel for DESC in the first place, will come through with some capital and operating funding for their longer-term proposal, and has shown the city some preliminary figures for what it would cost to operate both the motels and mass shelters at half their previous capacity.

“There are lots of people from different quarters who are enthusiastic about this idea, and that makes me think we would have a shot at pulling the resources together,” Malone says. “I just don’t feel the door is shut on this.”

“Pursuing this strategy of going to individual rooms is the way to go,” he continues, “and even if we got to the end of this epidemic in the future, that would still be a better way to do it.”

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