Can King County keep using empty hotels to fight homelessness?

Providers have used area hotels and motels as a stopgap since the pandemic began. Their future use is unclear.

Michael DeMaddalena, a participant in the Co-LEAD hotel-based intervention program for three months, is pictured at a hotel in SeaTac,  Feb. 15, 2021. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

It was late December 2020 and the city’s gaze had fallen on Seattle's Cal Anderson Park, where the parks and police departments were busy evicting people who had taken up residence in the bathhouse near the ballfields.

But as the clash between police and protesters unfolded — eventually leading to 24 arrests — a quieter migration was taking place to the southwest, in Pioneer Square. The stretch of sidewalk near the Union Gospel Mission that was once crowded with tents had emptied, seemingly overnight. There had been no sweep, no evictions. Instead, roughly 30 people had moved from the concrete to a hotel left vacant by the pandemic.

The Pioneer Square operation was months in the making, an effort coordinated among service providers, outreach workers, city departments, nearby businesses and police. Bringing people from the streets into a hotel was complicated and the costs associated considerable, at least when compared with what many people have come to expect for temporary shelter.

For the team at JustCARE— a pandemic-era outgrowth of the Public Defender Association pushing to secure space in hotels for homeless people — the action was a proof of concept of sorts, reinforced through its concurrence with the chaotic scene at Cal Anderson. Moving people around doesn't help, staff argue, but neither does abandoning them in encampments. The empty hotel spaces created by the pandemic are an opportunity to showcase a third approach to quickly getting people indoors, one advocates hope can outlive COVID-19.

"The goal right now is about how do we build out an understanding of the approach and get a coalition around it?" said Jesse Benet, deputy director of the Public Defender Association.

JustCARE is one of a number of efforts that have emerged in the pandemic, determined to make the most of a dormant tourism industry on behalf of people living outside. Last March, King County purchased or leased five hotels. They included the Renton Red Lion, which houses around 230 clients from the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and a hotel in SeaTac run by Catholic Community Services and housing about 100 people. For its part, JustCARE is a separate effort, but with county funding, led by the Public Defender Association and in coordination with Asian Counseling and Referral Service and the Chief Seattle Club. The program also works with the organizations REACH and Wheeler Davis on outreach and community safety. About 130 people have moved into hotels thanks to JustCARE.

Pandemic guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people in encampments shouldn’t be moved around and crowded shelters are dangerous. For service providers, these things were true even before the pandemic and should be true after as well 

"It doesn’t make any sense to us that we would revert back to the old, insufficient, inadequate, unacceptable way of doing things," said Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. "The speed at which some of these decisions were made and resources garnered and triggers pulled calls into question why we’ve been so slow and reluctant to do things in the past."

But with funding uncertain, going back to the old ways could be what happens.

The pandemic-related recession has left city and county budgets in trouble, and some officials are starting to balk at the cost of permanently leasing or purchasing hotels for use as temporary housing. Funding will run out in March for the county-operated hotels. And the Renton City Council voted to phase out DESC's use of the Red Lion over the course of the year.

The JustCARE program launched with now-expired federal dollars and is depending on emergency funding from the county to stay afloat. But with dollars limited and uncertain, the program hasn't brought any new clients into hotels since January and is looking toward a cliff when staff will have to begin shutting the hotels down.

Hanging in the balance is not only the fate of the hundreds currently staying in hotels around King County and whether the emergency housing system will default back to relying on crowded congregate shelters.

"As we look forward, how do we not lose this realization that it is still really bad for your health to be homeless?" said Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services. "How do we carry this urgency forward? Because there is no vaccination for homelessness."

Michelle McClendon, a shift lead with the Co-LEAD hotel-based intervention program, is pictured in her hotel-room office, where she also keeps canned goods and other items for program participants in SeaTac, Feb. 15, 2021. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

Merging 2020's stories

Michael DeMaddalena never liked to steal, but his addiction to heroin was strong enough that he did it anyway.

"I'm enslaved to it," he said. "This drug is freaking wicked. You cannot function without it. You can't get out of bed, you can't do anything. Your whole life revolves around that, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You've got to think of where you're going to get your next fix." 

DeMaddalena, 52, lived in a tent for years, most recently in the Chinatown-International District, where he stayed for seven months. There's nothing about that life to like, he said. It's cold. There's no running water. He can't cook, the thing he likes to do most. "It ain't a good thing," he said.

So when he heard that outreach workers with JustCARE were making the rounds in his encampment, asking if anyone was interested in coming indoors to a hotel, he jumped at the chance. He eventually moved into a south King County hotel, where he has been for nearly three months. With his clean-cut hair and smooth T-shirts, he's unrecognizable from when he was outside, he said. Staff at the hotel tend to agree. He attends daily Narcotics Anonymous Zoom meetings and began taking Suboxone to stave off his addiction.

"Just getting away from the environment and the people, I don't have so much pressure on me," he said. "I just want to try it this time — get this crap controlled and be normal."

"I'm 52 years old, I've been doing this shit since I was 17," he said, his voice catching. "You don't like to think about the time you've wasted — opportunities and everything — you don't want to dwell on it, but I reflect on that every now and then."

Much of the push to bring people into hotels was driven by a fear that crowded encampments and shelters would lead to COVID-19 outbreaks. But JustCARE views itself as larger than that — a partial antidote to a broader failed system that includes hospitals, jails and shelter. It's a merging of 2020's two stories.

"It's really capitalizing on lessons learned through COVID and then the 'Defund [the Police]' dynamic," said the Public Defender Association’s Benet.

DeMaddalena's story is a microcosm of what JustCARE hopes to accomplish through serving people who’ve lived outside the longest and struggle with the most severe mental or substance use issues. DeMaddalena has a lengthy list of theft charges, driven by his addiction to heroin, which he says he couldn't kick while he was living in an encampment. Now inside and comfortable, DeMaddelena is not just helping himself, but he’s potentially easing pressure on emergency systems and freeing up money that would have been spent on cops, courts and lawyers.

Early evidence indicates hotel stays do improve outcomes. For one, nearly everyone who offered space in a hotel has accepted, which Public Defender Association staff say punctures the myth of “service resistance.” A study from the University of Washington found that those who stayed in county-run hotels reported feeling greater stability, improved health and fewer conflicts, while 911 calls were reduced and placements into permanent housing improved. In their facilities, Benet said the staff has called 911 only four times since last spring — a sharp contrast to the frequent calls from congregate shelters and encampments. 

"Normally once someone gets in [to a hotel], you don't see them for a few days because they're just sleeping," said Derrick Belgrade, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club. "Then they slowly start getting better."

Michael DeMaddalena, left, a participant in the Co-LEAD hotel-based intervention program, talks with shift lead Michelle McClendon at her hotel-room office in SeaTac, Feb. 15, 2021. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

Fear of cost

The dark cloud that hangs over the hotel-based programs is what comes next, especially as hotels start to fill up again with paying customers.

The main issue is that the hotel programs are expensive. For JustCARE, that is simply the reality, especially if staff members are to be paid a living wage.  

"When you come from the place of, not scarcity, but more like generosity and abundance and actually do what it takes to take care of people, you can do some pretty cool shit, right?" said Benet. "You can actually keep people out of jail and keep cops from coming."

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis agreed. "It went out the window a long time ago that there’s some massive, cheap, scalable solution to homelessness," he said. "We need to stipulate to the fact that coming up with the remedies for what really is a systemic failure for our criminal legal system and public system which results in chronic homelessness is not going to be cheap."

But not everyone in Seattle City Hall agreed that hotels are the best or surest use of city dollars going forward. JustCARE recently requested funding from the city's Human Services Department, arguing it could be reimbursed later by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The department declined the request, saying the cost of more than $28,000 per room "is out of sync with the per room cost we provided" of $17,000. 

Kamaria Hightower, spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said the preferred approach moving forward is tiny house villages and "enhanced shelter" spaces, which she said are cheaper than hotels and therefore could stretch further. She added that counting on FEMA to reimburse the city is untenable. "It’s not any easy resource to access," she said. "This funding is really precarious." The city does not have $17 million lying around to start purchasing hotels if the reimbursement does not come through, she said.

King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who recently joined King County’s new regional authority on homelessness, said she doesn't have some hard number for what's too expensive. But she's cautious about the process by which money is going out the door, including to JustCARE. It's a balancing act between acting quickly and spending money in a way that will help the most number of people.

"We should be careful with the dollars we spend, given that we've made this policy turn to an essentially more expensive model," she said. "We're doing that for a good reason but that doesn't mean we should spend unlimited amounts of money on a given project."

But Lewis was confident that, at the very least, the cost of the hotels was FEMA-reimbursable and likely the operations as well. Pursuing the option was a no-brainer, he said, for the simple reason that allowing JustCARE to shut down would mean over 100 people with mental and substance use issues would be turned onto the streets.

"It would be absolute goddamn madness, at a time when street homelessness has never been worse in Seattle, to say, 'Here’s a way to keep 124 people off the street' and we’re just not going to do it," he said.

‘Homelessness will get worse’

Many nights while sleeping under the Yesler overpass, Jacqueline Martin would cry to herself. She had more than enough reasons: the rats that ate her food, the people who stole her things, the city, which pushed her around.

"People won't even look at you, like something's wrong with you, like it's going to rub off," she said.

Her new room is in downtown Seattle, in a slick hotel whose owner agreed to lease to the Public Defender Association as part of JustCARE. (Crosscut is not naming the hotel at the request of the Public Defender Association.) Staff from the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which has never taken on a project like this before, is managing the hotel. Martin seems to understand that the staff is adapting.

"I'm sure they're just kind of winging it and going by what they know," she said. "They want to help, though. They just want to help. They never look at me funny, never make me feel like, 'Oh, my God, you were homeless.'"

Some level of improvisation was required to set up these hotel programs so quickly. While it's mostly worked out so far, there has been some tension, particularly around the Red Lion in Renton.

DESC’s Malone, whose clients were relocated to Renton from the organization's downtown Seattle shelter, said the Red Lion is a vastly improved environment from the old, crowded shelter. But because DESC clients now live in a new community, that direct comparison is invisible to the people of Renton. And the reality is, DESC’s clientele is a complicated one.

"The fact that we moved there with very little local engagement done in advance was not the ideal way to go about it," said Malone."It was necessary, given the time pressure we were feeling because of the pandemic, but we’re seeing some of the repercussions of having done this suddenly and without much community input."

Despite the community reaction and funding challenges, people involved in these hotel projects are cautiously optimistic of finding a path forward, at least in the near term. Flor of the county Department of Community and Human Services said the county provided the emergency funding through March as sort of a gamble that the Biden administration would come through with more dollars. He believes that bet will pay off.

At the same time, the county recently approved a new sales tax toward creating new permanent supportive housing. The county is looking at purchasing more hotels, which Flor said could come cheaply now as the hospitality industry remains in dire straits. 

Finding a path forward is one key to preventing an influx of homelessness, Flor said. "Absent some sort of bold intervention, all of the drivers of homelessness will get worse this year, therefore homelessness will get worse this year," he said.

For Martin, the hotel resident, her goal is to find work and her own place to live. She'd love to go back to school and work in the legal system — to be a lawyer, maybe, like the one Matthew McConaughey plays in The Lincoln Lawyer.

But she needs time and the knowledge that she won’t be forced to move back to the streets. "The worst thing you can do in the world,” she said, “ is give someone housing and don't help them keep it." 

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.