Just 14 weeks ago, homelessness was the great unsolvable issue of our time—until all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
Before the coronavirus crisis consumed our region and the rest of the world, we had been told for years that homelessness was too big, too complicated, too expensive, and too difficult of a problem to crack. Every few years our elected officials would declare a state of emergency or issue a call to action. Despite everyone meaning well and trying hard, nothing ever really changed.
But since the first American case of novel coronavirus was diagnosed north of Seattle, we have learned that our society’s long-held beliefs about homelessness’ inherent intractability were built on a shaky foundation.
As the COVID-19 crisis got worse in March, King County and Seattle quickly created nearly 1,900 new “spaces” for people experiencing homelessness and those without a safe place to isolate or quarantine, including 95 new beds.
Hundreds of people typically living in shelters have simultaneously been moved to hotels in Bellevue, Kent, Federal Way, and Renton. They are provided three meals a day in these spaces staffed and operated by King County or the Downtown Emergency Service Center.
It is even more dramatic in California, where 15,000 rooms are being identified across the state to house people experiencing homelessness.
At the same time, innovative homelessness funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Ballmer Group have stepped up to quickly release new money and incorporate coronavirus response into their missions.
Together, these efforts are some of the biggest leaps and bounds forward we’ve had in a long time.
Governments and philanthropies typically move at a snail’s pace to implement dramatic changes like this, but the recent commendable efforts have happened in a comparative blink of an eye.
Once we have successfully defeated coronavirus, one thing is clear: these newly arrived solutions for homelessness cannot and should not be temporary. Instead, they must be continued and expanded, with permanent staffing and funding secured by our county and city elected officials.
We must follow California’s lead and dramatically expand programs to create new occupied hotel rooms and new shelter spaces until every person and family has a place to go. And after this is over, no person currently housed or in shelter should be kicked back out—regardless of their age or history.
It would be immoral and unfair for our leaders to return people into the difficult and unhealthy situations they were in before the virus. We have opened a door to a new status quo, and the door should never be closed again, especially with the increasing likelihood of another viral outbreak later this year.
To be sure, hotels—just like shelter beds and tiny houses—are not replacements for actual homes. But they are a dramatic improvement. And most importantly at this moment, they heavily reduce the risk of COVID transmission now and in the future.
Regional governments must also continue to support people with wraparound services for health care, addiction, and job placement. Together, these efforts will cost a large amount of taxpayer money and staff resources, but the last month has shown us that we can view these investments as a necessity.
Ongoing efforts to heavily increase homelessness prevention, build real affordable homes, and find progressive revenue sources must continue, but they must do so under the new status quo. Homelessness in Seattle and King County has been dramatically changed by coronavirus, and we can’t go back.
Erik Houser is a former Congressional aide and an advocate focused on housing and homelessness. He lives in Fremont.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece quoted an incomplete analysis of the city's expanded shelter capacity. That analysis has been removed.