Hundreds of people experiencing homelessness used severe weather shelters to escape the winter storm that blanketed western Washington in snow and ice in the early weeks of February.
Some, like Stephen Johnson, typically avoid shelters. They’re too noisy, Johnson said. People talk in their sleep and snore. He made the choice to go indoors after finding his tent caved in under the weight of the snow. “It was too cold to stay outside,” Johnson said.
The storm drove indoors many like Johnson who don’t often interact with the homeless services system. Local officials took advantage by creating an impromptu resource fair at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, where they opened one of three severe weather shelters.
Between Feb. 15 and Feb. 17, people were offered breakfast, lunch and the opportunity to sign up for housing lists, work opportunities, food benefits and basic medical care.
Approximately 200 people attended the fair, according to a release from the city.
Booths for groups like the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), YouthCare and FareStart were set up along the perimeter of the space. Tables and chairs were arranged so people could rest and eat a warm meal of baked chicken, broccoli and fruit salad.
It is unusual for all of these services to be in the same place at the same time. Nick Rankin said events like the resource fair should be organized more frequently.
Rankin is a career pathways and housing specialist with the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), which runs the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID). MID’s ambassador program hires people to keep an eye on downtown neighborhoods and do outreach to people experiencing homelessness. Some MID employees are formerly homeless. The organization has a program to connect those employees with housing.
Events like the resource fair make it easy for people who might not otherwise hear about programs like the Downtown Ambassadors to learn their options, Rankin said. “I think it should be the norm.”
Melinda, who asked not to be identified by her last name, agreed.
Melinda has been homeless in Seattle for several years. Normally, she’d stay at different shelter in another part of the city. The shelter is smaller, without as many toilets or other hygiene facilities. That means planning out bathroom breaks during the night and being forced to make choices between showering and cleaning clothes.
That wasn’t a problem at the Exhibition Hall, Melinda said. She woke up, staff didn’t rush her out. She had a chance to charge her cell phone and apply for housing at the same time.
“I slept better here than I have in two years,” Melinda said.
David, who also asked not to be identified by last name, lives on a fixed income. He came to the shelter because he was spending $400 a week on a motel room, and he wanted to save some money for an apartment or possibly a camper van. While there, he received a hepatitis vaccine and visited a foot care clinic.
“Overall, this is a very good program,” David said.
Emergency shelter will remain open at least through Feb. 22, according to a release from the city. Should those shelters close, hundreds of spaces for people experiencing homelessness will disappear. The traditional shelter system already runs at roughly 90 percent capacity. “Where are we all going to go?” Melinda asked.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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