Don’t close King County’s hotel homeless shelters

The makeshift shelter in Bellevue has been a respite for many women. It’s set to close at the end of August.

(Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

COVID-19 has turned nearly every aspect of our daily lives upside down. How we learn, work and socialize have been transformed by this pandemic. With cases increasing at an alarming rate in King County as our communities emerge from the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, it is clear our new normal is here to stay for some time.

But for the roughly 600 people experiencing homelessness who transitioned into private hotel rooms last April  — including 120 women from The Sophia Way shelters at the peak of the virus — a new routine is providing a welcome respite from the crowded, congregate shelter environments they lived in before the pandemic.

Congregate shelters, by their very nature, force residents to share extremely close quarters, significantly increasing the risk of virus transmission. In an effort to slow the spread and keep everyone safe, King County funded moves to Red Lion Hotels in Bellevue and Renton, providing hundreds of congregate shelter occupants from The Sophia Way and the Downtown Emergency Service Center their own hotel rooms.

The results have been positive for many people.

At The Sophia Way, we serve a highly vulnerable population of single, adult women on the Eastside, and providing safe accommodations for them has never been more essential. We know that those experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to contagious illnesses like COVID-19.

As our nation continues a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism and injustice, we cannot ignore that Black, Indigenous and people of color disproportionately experience homelessness. According to King County’s 2020 Point-In-Time Count, Native American/Alaska Native people made up 1% of the population in King County, but represented 15% of the respondents experiencing homelessness. Black Americans are 7% of the King County population, but were 25% of respondents.

This same disproportionality is reflected in who we serve at The Sophia Way. Nearly 50% are women of color, with 26% identifying as Black. Additionally, older women aged 55 to 89 are disproportionately represented at our facility — a population that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says may be at higher risk of COVID-19. Nearly half of the population served at The Sophia Way has either a physical, emotional or psychological disability, which are other risk factors for COVID-19.

Unfortunately, not all people experiencing homelessness are successful living on their own. For Sophia Way clients, roughly 30 of the 80 women staying overnight have private rooms in the hotel. The others are sharing less cramped space with greater social distancing than our regular shelter. More women are able to join us in our day center, now located in a large ballroom. For those staying in hotel rooms, supportive services are essential for success.

With the additional space afforded women at the Red Lion, there are fewer disruptions and more peace. Women are able to stretch out both inside the hotel and outside on hotel property. And as one of our clients wrote to us, having a quiet space to herself at the hotel has been “transformative,” allowing her to treat a longstanding health issue, research, write, network and reflect on the life she wants to create for herself. Additionally, three clients have obtained employment. Put simply, the stability and security of a private space and freedom to manage one’s own schedule have improved people’s lives.

It is true that there have been growing pains as communities have incorporated new residents — especially in Renton, where local officials have asked the county to relocate the makeshift shelter following a series of public safety concerns in the area. But the vast majority of people I've talked to have compassionately opened their arms to help those most vulnerable in a pandemic. In Bellevue, where most Sophia Way clients are being served, the community on the whole has been very supportive. Homelessness is a regional issue in King County, and every community has a role to play in responding and solving the crisis.

We are nowhere close to being out of the woods yet. We know there are tremendously challenging times ahead, as King County lawmakers will be forced to make difficult decisions to keep people safe and healthy.

Moving more than 600 people out of cramped shelters and into safe, clean housing is an important first step toward addressing homelessness in our community. Unfortunately, the hotels’ original 90-day leases are up at the end of August, and the fates of the hundreds of people who are thriving there are unclear. Moving back into congregate shelters would be a massive step backward, both for the residents themselves and for the prosperity of the Eastside and our entire region.

Doctors and public health experts know our communities are only as safe and healthy as those most vulnerable — and we ignore these warnings at our own peril. Truly addressing this crisis will take nothing less than a courageous commitment to bring all of our neighbors safely inside.

Indeed, rather than a return to the status quo, the overall successes we are seeing at the Red Lion hotels should only further our resolve to extend these crucial leases, and expand affordable housing solutions and permanent supportive housing to all of our neighbors in King County who need it. It’s also a clear indication of how successful the future of homeless services can be with the right resources and focus.

Homelessness is often seen, particularly in King County, as an impossible problem with no solution. The transformations we are seeing point to a simple and unsurprising concept: When we give people a safe place to live, even people who experience homelessness chronically can reap the benefits and remain housed.

In this unprecedented time, we know budgets are stretched. If we are as committed to meaningfully combating this issue, we must ensure that budgets, creative new revenue sources and policies coming out of this crisis move us forward, not backward. We hope that state, regions and communities continue to work together to end homelessness.

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