On Dec. 21 at 5 p.m., Women in Black (WIB) held its annual candlelight vigil for unhoused individuals who have died outside, in public or by violence. In 20-degree weather, with near-record lows predicted for the rest of the week, attendees stood silently on the steps of Seattle’s City Hall, mourning a different kind of record: 270 deaths in a single year.
By the King County Medical Examiner’s Office (MEO) count, whose criteria varies slightly from WIB’s, 278 presumed homeless individuals had died as of
“Absolutely we should be embarrassed,” said Brigid Hagan, a WIB member, reflecting on the number. “We have the wealth in this city to see to it that everyone has a safe place to stay, has the services that they need, has the support that they need. That wealth exists in this city.”
While the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in King County has gone up, at least by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s (KCRHA) estimate, to around 62,000 individuals experiencing homelessness at some point during the year, the increase in deaths is still a sharp one.
“Someone said that it works out to a 35 percent increase this year, which is huge. Just huge,” Hagan said. WIB’s count for 2021 was 178 deaths. The increase in people experiencing homelessness certainly has something to do with it, Hagan admitted, but she placed the blame on government’s failure to also increase available shelter.
“With more people homeless, with more people with no place to go and no increase — or not enough of an increase — of shelter, of course the percentage of people who are dying outside is going to [go] up,” she said.
While the winter solstice vigil is the final WIB event of the year, the number of people it honors is by no means a final count for the year. It does not include many deaths that occur in December. Hagan said that, on a preliminary list of those deaths, four more people had already died of exposure.
The MEO’s data lists hypothermia or exposure as one of the causes of death in nine instances. Hagan’s estimate of four additional exposure deaths would represent a 44 percent increase over 2021, when nine presumed homeless individuals also died of exposure. While fentanyl is clearly the biggest driver of the surge in deaths — 145 individuals on the MEO’s list had acute fentanyl intoxication (overdose) listed as one of their causes of death — both addiction experts and unhoused individuals agree that fentanyl use goes up during cold weather.
Tim, an unhoused individual who currently lives in a sanctioned encampment next to a University District church, said in an interview at a Nov. 13 cold weather gear giveaway that it was common to see fentanyl used as a relief from low temperatures.
“A lot of people, at the end of the night and they’re cold and they’re hungry, right? They don’t have no money to get into a hotel … so the only thing they can really do is to go get high. And then that carries them through for a little bit,” he said. Though it may provide relief from the pain of exposure, it actually increases the risks associated with it — drug or alcohol use severely exacerbates hypothermia. And those risks are especially high this year.
“This is a colder winter than usual already,” Hagan said. “We’re having more extreme weather summers, which is a risk. We’ve been having colder winters, which is a risk. Technically, this is the first day of winter. Winter is really just beginning, and our traditionally cold months are ahead of us already. Four people died of exposure.”
In response to the recent cold snap, KCRHA and the city have opened emergency shelters. Between City Hall, Compass Housing Alliance’s Otto’s Place Shelter and Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, there are 250 overnight shelter spaces available, 180 of which allow pets. The 60 beds at Otto’s Place are in a facility that also serves as a day center, and the day center’s hours have been extended to line up with overnight shelter hours, making it effectively a 24/7 warming center. Other 24/7 shelter includes the Seattle Indian Center’s 15-bed shelter for men and the Low Income Housing Institute’s (LIHI) 22-bed space at the Lakefront Community House. The Indian Center does not mention pets, but LIHI’s space is pet friendly. KCRHA Spokesperson Anne Martens, in a Nov. 23 Real Change article about how unhoused individuals deal with cold, said that the extra shelter beds have not always been full. During a November activation, she said, only 25 of the 60 beds at Compass Housing Alliance’s Otto’s Place shelter were used.
That’s a problem, according to Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI. In response to a dearth of cold weather shelter in the Bitter Lake area, her organization opened their 22-bed emergency shelter in early December in the common room of the Lakefront Community House. That experience, she wrote in a Dec. 9 letter addressed to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, King County Executive Dow Constantine and KCRHA CEO Marc Dones, convinced her that the current approach to severe weather shelter was inadequate.
The shelter, which opened on Friday, Dec. 2, only had seven residents at 9 p.m. the next day. To the shelter staff, Lee said, that indicated not a lack of demand but rather a lack of outreach.
“It was evident to staff that word had not reached people living on the street. So Saturday evening a staff member drove to encampments in the immediate area and talked to people staying outside. Our staff found 4 people who were only too willing to go to a warm shelter. Eventually after a week of reaching out and notification, Lakefront Community House was full,” Lee wrote in her letter.
That level of outreach should be standard, she argued, going on to criticize the city and county’s current outreach efforts as inadequate.
“It’s our understanding that although there are 60+ publicly funded outreach workers, there are none who work evenings and weekends. No one is specifically charged with outreach during severe weather when people are most vulnerable,” Lee wrote. “As a consequence severe weather shelters tend to mostly help those who are most capable of navigating the system.”
“The current severe weather system fails too many vulnerable people,” she concluded, describing it later in the letter as “an ad hoc collection of services and locations assembled at the last minute.”
Her letter ends with a suggestion that KCRHA convert its Housing Command Center into “the logistics hub of a robust, County-wide, severe weather response system” and lists a number of services and public information campaigns that she would like it to perform. Notably, this included “a team of dedicated outreach workers, equipped with vans, who can be dispatched to assist the most vulnerable people and transport them to appropriate shelters.”
Because of this, she worries that crucial information about emergency shelter isn’t making it to where it’s most useful.
“I don’t believe that the outreach workers are getting this out to the encampments because they’re not showing up,” she said.
After the WIB candlelight vigil, a faith leader led a short reflection in the courtyard next to City Hall’s grand staircase before attendees headed into the Fourth Avenue lobby for a consolatory pizza party — an overabundance of Pagliacci’s provided, as per tradition, by King County Medical Examiner Richard Harruff — and some desperately needed warmth. An informal survey revealed that, after just an hour in the cold, no one could feel their toes.
As everyone shuffled into the Fourth Avenue lobby via the large, red-paneled courtyard doors, Anitra Freeman, a member of WIB and Real Change board member, asked the group if anyone knew when the emergency shelter at City Hall would be open. There was a man at the lobby’s north door, hoping to stay there overnight. A quick check of this journalist’s email revealed that, between the hours of 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., “Anyone seeking shelter should enter City Hall from 600 Fourth Avenue.”
At 6:01 p.m., there were no staffers in the lower lobby and no signage directing potential shelter residents where to go.
Read more of the Dec. 28, 2022-Jan. 3, 2023 issue.