Seattle homelessness issue becomes more complex amid coronavirus

Homeless Women - Romi Chiorean - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Among a total of 233 people tested, 35 residents and eight staff members resulted positive for COVID-19 in three Seattle homeless shelters, as resulted from an investigation conducted one month ago by the PHSKC (Public Health – Seattle and King County) and the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Inspections also took place in 12 facilities that reported the presence of single cases. By April 20, there were 112 confirmed cases and two fatalities among the homeless and the shelter personnel in King County.

Proper distancing can be a tough challenge in communal housing environments, where proximity to others is the norm, making shelters the ideal space for viruses to flourish. The CDC explains that the contagion might have originated in crowded shelters, the movement of the clients, the often-asymptomatic presence of the virus, and the lack of face masks for residents.

To ensure safety, guests were recommended to remain within the boundaries of the shelters, now provided with on-site services such as portable showers (to avoid commutes to public showers). Sanitizing practices were improved, while clients and workers received disposable masks. Sleeping mats lay so that residents’ heads are at least six feet apart. All guests and employees went through testing, the infected and the most vulnerable moved into individual accommodations while hospitals took the most critical. King County, the City of Seattle, and United Way of King County opened a warehouse with hygiene supplies to provide shelters with items including bleach, masks and gloves.

The CDC urged people not to clear homeless camps until housing for isolation and quarantine becomes available to the encamped population. Sweeping the tents away would further compromise the health of their inhabitants as, by dispersing, they become hard to locate and assist. Local health agencies and homeless housing systems are working to provide necessities and ensure the respect of safety guidelines adapted to that environment, such as proper tent distancing.

Seattle Mayor Durkan proposed on April 24 to direct $14 million from the new federal funds toward “COVID-19 priorities,” such as shelters, services for the homeless and homelessness prevention plans. Meanwhile, King County has carried out an operation of “shelter de-intensification” by opening temporary shelters in locations such as the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall and the King County International Airport. The airport’s Arrivals Hall was turned into a shelter in March to host adult men, many of whom are above the age of 55 and transferred from St. Martin de Porres in Seattle. Furthermore, King County has provided funding for hotel and motel vouchers, with the advantage of significantly supporting these businesses. On April 10, hotels received 400 people from Catholic Community Services, DESC and The Sophia Way shelters. King County opened a temporary 24/7 shelter at the Recovery Café in SoDo for people with alcohol and drug addiction, intending to leave emergency room beds for patients in severe conditions.

Similar action was taken by other counties, whose administrations are teaming with medical personnel, social workers, law enforcement, and philanthropic agencies to address this challenge. “We got a pandemic on top of an already existing homeless crisis,” says Mary Jane Brell Vujovic, Snohomish County’s Director of Human Services. In 2019, Snohomish County counted almost 600 unsheltered individuals. They managed to take 300 off the streets, yet the people at risk of homelessness are increasing as the rate of unemployment claims rises. She expresses her gratitude to the community’s hard work and collective resilience, but she acknowledges the difficult financial challenge. “We already didn’t have adequate resources before the outbreak, and that is true for all counties. […] Federal investment in some key programs that address the need for more housing […] has declined over the past decade, and the need is greater than the resources available.” She explains that Congress has recently passed funding for homelessness focused programs, but the funding is short term. “We are receiving the resources to address these needs, but once the pandemic is over, we expect things will return to the way they were.”