Seattle’s homeless ‘shelter surge’ unveiled with fewer shelter beds, more questions

A ‘homelessness authority’ was supposed to get Seattle and its suburbs on the same page; after a slow year, they may be further apart

Last fall, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office proposed using federal funds to open 300 hotel rooms, create 125 new 24-hour accommodation and invest in more rental support to get homeless people off the streets and into permanent homes. The “Shelter Surge”, as the officials called it, was due to start in December 2020 with mostly federal funds.

After two months of delay, the mayor’s office last week revealed new details of this plan. So far it is smaller than originally proposed. 221 hotel areas are expected to open in March and 60 newly created 24-hour protective beds.

Following the announcement, a debate has erupted over whether Durkan should push harder for federal funds to reach the remaining third of the promised protective beds.

The Seattle Times Homeless Project is funded by the BECU, Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks, and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times retains editorial control over the content of Project Homeless.

A central point of the city plan is to use money in the form of vouchers for the “quick reinstatement”, which is intended to offer people who only need a short financial support a quick route into housing construction, to move up to 231 people, Come to the new shelters in more permanent homes.

However, some homeless services organizations have raised concerns that funds for rapid relocation may not be suitable for people who will end up in these new shelters. Similar accommodations have large numbers of people with mental health or substance use disorders who may have trouble paying housing costs after the subsidies are gone.

At a city council meeting on Wednesday afternoon, councilors Lisa Herbold and Dan Strauss asked the mayor’s office who these rooms are for – people with the highest needs and greatest visibility on the streets of Seattle, or people who need less assistance?

“Our goal here is both/.and “said Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller. “People with high visual acuity needs and others.”

King County’s rapid renovation programs have produced mixed results: Between October 2019 and October 2020, 9% of households that actually found rental properties with the vouchers became homeless again within a year, according to King County. People with lower incomes tend to perform worse in the program.

“We initially told the city that their intention to link rapid resettlement to this approach was likely wrong,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle / King County Coalition on Homelessness.

This city’s neighbors, disappointed with growing camps, the thousands of people who live outside in pandemic and winter weather, “deserve a more intelligent, strategic, organized and cooperative response than they are now,” Eisinger said.

Mayor spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said rapid relocation is just one of many answers in the homeless system, including housing with support services.

“It has proven successful in helping people regain housing and avoid recurring episodes of homelessness,” Hightower said in a statement.

The city has also encountered some obstacles in finding hotel partners.

Seattle officials reached out to 100 hotels to join the initiative and ended up landing on nine that were “viable and ready to discuss our program,” Hightower said. Of those nine, officials narrowed the pool down to two hotels – the Kings Inn in Belltown and the Executive Hotel Pacific in downtown Seattle – based on location, cost, and how well they can accommodate customers and program social services. The city plans to rent both locations for up to a year.

The Chief Seattle Club will operate 66 rooms at the Kings Inn Shelter, and the city is well on its way to signing a contract with the Low Income Housing Institute, the nonprofit responsible for almost everyone the town’s tiny home villages to monitor 155 rooms at the Executive Hotel Pacific.

The city said several hotels contacted by officials had already worked with other service providers to protect the homeless or had enough business to feed them without a city contract.

However, some hotel owners also raised concerns about participating in a conservation program for reasons such as “community and neighborhood concerns, concerns about hotel wear and tear, media reports of negative effects on hotels, uncertainty about when tourism would pick up again and the.” Challenge to stop and then resume marketing in an already difficult environment, ”said Hightower.

Seattle’s urge to place people in hotels comes nearly a year after King County paid to house hundreds of the homeless at the start of the pandemic. With the 470 hotel rooms the county pays for and more than 100 originally paid for from federal CARES Act funds, there are now more than 800 homeless in King County hotels.

But these rooms are expensive: King County burns millions a month to keep them open and isn’t sure where to find money for them after March 31st. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse much of the associated costs for hotel rooms, but only if they put people at risk of developing a serious case of COVID-19, the King County’s emergency director told the earlier this month Seattle Times.

The hotels have also created controversy at times: Seattle’s downtown Morrison Hotel animal shelter, home to some of the county’s most vulnerable people, has been relocated to nearby Renton and has caused divisions in the city. After businesses and residents complained about a sharp rise in emergency calls, Renton City Council passed an Emergency Ordinance restricting future emergency accommodation and requiring hotel accommodation to be empty by the end of this year.

But the hotels have proven to be good for many of the residents: a study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington found that it not only reduced the spread of COVID-19, but also improved residents’ sleep, hygiene, and mental health to have. Hotel accommodations have also sparked less fighting and emergency calls than crowded community shelters, more exits to permanent shelters, and signs of greater commitment to housing services for the homeless.

At the city council meeting on Wednesday, Herbold asked whether the city was planning to expand to 300 rooms.

“We plan to open these two hotels and we will continue to explore additional hotel options,” said Sixkiller.

Sixkiller said the city also plans to continue looking for places to add or increase 24-hour protection.

City council members have argued that this should be easy as President Joe Biden has directed FEMA to reimburse 100% of the costs associated with responding to the pandemic. The city, which currently has no cash flow problem, could just get the money under control and hope that FEMA will reimburse it in the future.

But that, too, was a source of friction between the mayor’s office and the city council: after the news site PubliCola said Friday that Seattle would “decline” an “offer” by the Biden administration to pay for the hotels, two councilors The members as well Seattle Club head and mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk responded with outrage that the city was not seeking a “100% reimbursement” for accommodation from the federal government.

“These proposed federal dollars are what is necessary to address what can be compared to a burning house,” Councilor Teresa Mosqueda said in a press release. “Our current answer, by comparison, is a bucket of water and we need a fire hose. We absolutely have to use this resource. ”

In response, Durkan Chief of Staff Stephanie Formas pointed out that the city is actually seeking reimbursement for food and tiny home villages through FEMA, and that some of the most expensive parts of hotel accommodation, such as behavioral health services, are not reimbursed by FEMA.

“The statements of the household chairman are false, irresponsible and put a huge disadvantage to the relentless work that city workers have done to support the most vulnerable residents of our city,” Formas said in a statement. “Your so-called outrage can best be used to find facts before tweeting.”

In September, FEMA tightened restrictions on the hotel rooms it would pay for. Hence, opening up more and hoping for FEMA money would be a risk, said Julie Dingley, finance and policy manager at the City Budget Office.

“What they don’t want is, ‘Oh, that’s just free money, so we’re going to do something we wouldn’t have done before,” said Dingley.

However, Councilor Andrew Lewis said the city should step up efforts to open more hotel accommodation beyond these new hotel rooms and apply for FEMA money for anything that can be refunded.

“The reason there are tents all over town is because of COVID, and the reason we can’t remove them is because of CDC guidelines,” Lewis said. “So we should be exploring every single way to get people into the house.”