Mayor Ed Murray visited people living under I-5 Wednesday.
Mayor Ed Murray visited people living under I-5 Wednesday. Tim Durkan Photography/

Yesterday afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray announced plans to open exactly the type of homeless shelter Seattle is in desperate need of: a place that's open 24/7, allows pets and couples, and provides space for people to store their belongings.

It's an important move that advocates and city council members have been calling for. But the announcement is unlikely to calm anger from homeless advocates who criticize the mayor's ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments and his insistence on closing the encampment under I-5 known as the Jungle.

First, the basics about this new shelter: Murray says the center will be modeled off San Francisco's Navigation Center, a dorm-style facility that is open 24 hours a day and offers case management services as well as showers, laundry, meals, and storage. Most current shelters operate for about 11 hours, a system Council Member Sally Bagshaw calls "impossible and inhumane." People line up in the evening to come inside and then have to be out (with all their belongings) by early morning. As one person experiencing homelessness told KUOW recently, that life is not always preferable to sleeping outside.

From the mayor's announcement:

The San Francisco Navigation Center prioritizes serving people from geographic areas with extraordinary public health and public safety challenges, places like Seattle’s I-5 East Duwamish Greenbelt. One of the reasons it is effective is because the model enables organic groups or communities that have formed in specific geographic areas to stay together and transition to the Navigation Center.

Murray's office says they'll use $600,000 from the state, a $600,000 private donation, and a new fund to "collect additional private donations to support the center." A city workgroup will spend the next two months coming up with a specific plan for the center with a goal of opening it by the end of this year.

We'll see over the next few months whether the city can meet that timeline. For now, it's important to remember just what a move like this can and cannot do for the region's homelessness emergency.

This new shelter can help a small group of people, about 75 at a time, including perhaps some of those currently living in the Jungle whose needs aren't being met by the city's current limited shelter system. It's also politically savvy move for Murray, who has had a very bad few weeks on this front. After criticism, he backpedaled from his original plan for the Jungle. Then, there was that text exchange with Bagshaw. Now, Murray's face is on the cover of this week's Real Change as a mask the paper is encouraging people to wear to the Fremont Solstice Parade to protest encampment sweeps. This shows he's been listening to at least one of the concerns from advocates.

But the shelter announcement comes with no indication that the mayor plans to stop sweeping homeless encampments, as advocates have demanded. While the new location will eventually house about 75 people at a time, about 3,000 people sleep unsheltered in Seattle each night. Under I-5, the city found 200 tents and structures where people were living earlier this year.

"You can take 75 people off the streets and [into] shelter. That doesn't put us in a position where now it's fine to move people around," says Nicole Macri, deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center. (DESC operates emergency shelter and low-barrier housing, and Macri is running for a state house seat.) "2,800 people are still outside—most of whom are in unauthorized conditions."

The real solution, as everyone acknowledges, is more housing. The funding for San Francisco's Navigation Center is paired with funding for single room occupancy (SRO) units across the city so people using the center have somewhere to go. We'll have to wait and see whether Seattle's center follows that model. (That would likely require more money than the $1.2 million mentioned in the mayor's press release.)

To address housing needs for people with no or very low incomes, Murray has proposed doubling the housing levy. Advocates like Macri say we need even more funding for rent subsidies and low-income housing. And that kind of work is more expensive and slower.

"So policy makers alternatively send out their big media announcements about new facilities that sound significant and certainly will help a few people avoid the despair of outdoor survival (a very good thing)," Macri says by email , "but will not cause even the slightest disruption to the actual problem."