People experiencing homelessness have been given more space to sleep and promises that they will be left in peace while trying to survive outside during the coronavirus crisis in the Puget Sound region. However, elected officials are signaling that these policies have an expiration date despite positive results reported by service providers.
Renton officials used the public comment period at the King County Council meeting on May 5 to ask that the county end its lease of rooms at the Red Lion hotel after the contracted 90 days, citing increased calls on emergency lines and criminal activity in the downtown core. That same week, Seattle approved a sweep of people experiencing homelessness in Ballard Commons park against Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
There have been 30 calls to 9-1-1 in the past month compared to one during the same time in 2019 said Rick Marshall, Renton’s fire chief.
“We have seen significant demands on time and resources in this first month of the deintensification shelter to the point it’s straining our ability to serve the rest of the area,” Marshall said.
The concerns come even as service providers are reporting that clients who moved into more stable situations are better able to deal with underlying issues such as substance abuse.
DESC clients at the Red Lion Hotel in Renton have also seen benefits since the county rented out vacant hotel rooms to give space to people who once lived at the main shelter at Third Avenue and Yesler Way, said Daniel Malone, executive director of DESC.
“Harborview doctors doing services at the site reported in a meeting that one of the clients had said that they were able to start thinking about how they could address their substance use, and they didn’t feel that way before,” Malone said. “That’s an example of the kind of benefit that we’ve seen there.”
Malone does not dispute that residents of the hotel are calling police and fire, but moving people into their own rooms has had a real impact on the health of DESC clients.
“It’s going great, it’s amazing,” Malone said.
DESC is not alone.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) also moved clients into hotel rooms during the coronavirus crisis. Many have decided to enter treatment programs, said Melodie Reece, a project manager with LEAD.
“Half of our client load have personally opted into medical-assisted treatment, which is essentially a way for folks to help wean off of their drug of choice,” Reece said. “For that many people to say, ‘I’m ready to stop my addiction and I’m ready to ask for medical help’ is really profound and would not have happened if we hadn’t given then a place to sleep.”
The question is what happens when the coronavirus crisis ends.
Seattle has become addicted to the “narcotic of discussion,” said Sara Rankin, a professor at Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.
“We use words like ‘homeless,’ ‘state of emergency,’ ‘crisis,’ ‘bold,’ ‘urgent,’ but we don’t act in a way that’s consistent with those words,” Rankin said.
Instead, Seattle relies on other superlatives while rejecting our collective responsibility for the homelessness crisis, Rankin said.
“We blame people who are homeless and in poverty for their own circumstances, but we also do that as a community where we blame others for the problems we’re facing,” Rankin said.
The apathy is harming homeless people.
On May 4, the city’s Navigation Team swept Ballard Commons park where as many as 40 people were residing at any given time. The sweep came despite assurances from the city that such evictions of people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus crisis would only happen if the encampments were hazardous.
The park has long been a place that homeless people took refuge. It’s nearby a now shuttered meal program and one of the few public restrooms in the city of Seattle. The Seattle Human Services Department tweeted that the sweep had been conducted after extensive outreach and due to a Hepatitis A outbreak connected to the park.
According to Seattle & King County Public Health, there has been a cluster of Hepatitis A cases in Ballard, at least five of which were connected to a local restaurant.
It’s not a lack of good intentions, Rankin said, but the city hasn’t done the hard work of grappling with what’s necessary to confront the overlapping crises of the coronavirus and homelessness.
“There isn’t a comprehensive strategy and no commitment to a comprehensive strategy. That’s when you start to see the wheels come off,” Rankin said. “When the wheels come off, that’s when vulnerable people suffer the most.”
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.
Read more of the May 13-19, 2020 issue.