Monica Sehorn, 44, died alone of natural causes and lay in her room at the YWCA for several days before building staff unlocked her door at the request of her neighbors.
Sehorn's November 2010 death wasn't the first to go unnoticed at the agency's flagship property and regional headquarters at Fifth Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle.
On Jan. 14, 2010, staff discovered the decomposed remains of 64-year-old India Valdez, seven weeks after she died of a heart attack.
In mid-December 2009, while Valdez lay dead, staff found that Julia Rawlings, 51, had died in her room several days before, of complications from diabetes, the King County Medical Examiner's Office said.
These end-of-life tragedies scared the Y's residents, who are poor and for the most part, retired and living alone. They pushed for changes at the building they call home, and one year later, they've got them.
The YWCA helped tenants form the Seneca Residents Council, which in turn created the welfare check or "buddy" system and got the building to adopt it.
In December 2010, the YWCA also removed one staff member from a resident services position and, just recently, put a new property manager in charge of the building.
But residents say the biggest change is that staff check on residents when asked.
"Now when a person walks up and says, 'I'm concerned about Mary Jane and I haven't seen her in three days, they do go and check," said resident Ariel Watts. "That's very nice."
Cathy MacCaul, the YWCA's associate director of community affairs, said the YWCA has always had a welfare check system in place that called for staff to unlock doors and check residents if they hadn't been seen in two days and hadn't advised staff they would be away.
It didn't help India Valdez. Weeks before Valdez was discovered, Watts said a staff member had entered Valdez's room and failed to find her lying between her bed and an open window, even though her TV was on ("Life and death at a downtown building," RC, Feb. 17-23, 2010).
Immediately after the discovery, Watts said residents signed a petition demanding the YWCA change their procedures and started creating their own welfare check system.
The resident council started meeting in February 2009, Watts said.
By April, they finalized a one-page form that allows residents to specify how and when to check on them, whether in three days or three weeks, she said.
Instead of asking for "emergency contacts" -- people who might be far away and out of touch -- the form asks residents to list two or three people they talk to on a regular basis.
If a person listed on the form makes two inquiries about a resident, that's a trigger for staff to knock on a woman's door and, if she doesn't answer, to enter and check on her, Watts said.
Under property manager Julie Combs, staff now respond promptly to their concerns about other residents, Watts said.
After 48 hours, two staff members will enter the unit and conduct a search behind doors and beds or anywhere else a person could end up, MacCaul said.
Entering a room to check on a resident after 48 or 72 hours is standard practice for nonprofit programs that house the frail or formerly homeless, Seattle housing providers say. Unlike standard landlord leases, language in their contracts allows for it, said M.J. Kiser, program manager for Seattle's Compass Housing Alliance.
Compass uses what Kiser calls an "I saw you" form to check off when a resident is seen. If three days go by without any checks by the person's name, staff will knock and enter, she said.
At larger buildings operated by Plymouth Housing, program director Greg Eckerman said staff put dates beside a resident's name. The difference between the YWCA and Plymouth's program, he said, is that the Seneca Building is more like an ordinary apartment house and Plymouth is a homeless housing program with services and extra staff on site.
There are "more eyes and ears talking and walking the floors," Eckerman said. "It's seldom that it goes more than a few days before [someone] gets discovered" if they've passed away.
Out of Plymouth's 900 housing units, about 15 people die alone in their units each year and may not be discovered immediately, he said. At the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which operates 800 units, 25 people passed away last year, Administrative Director Nicole Macri said.