No more sleeping in City Hall!
No more sleeping in City Hall during the pandemic, says the city. LESTER BLACK

Nope, sorry, you can't sleep at Seattle City Hall anymore.

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Seattle is moving away from shared—or congregate—shelter spaces during the pandemic, and the very congregate City Hall shelter space does not jive with that plan.

The Salvation Army, which currently operates the City Hall shelter, is packing up four existing basic shelter programs in congregate facilities across Seattle and moving them to a new 24/7 enhanced shelter facility in SoDo. The Salvation Army's pivot is part of Mayor Jenny Durkan's $34 million strategy to create more shelter capacity to stop the spread of COVID-19.

By December, Durkan and the Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) plan to secure 425 new, non-congregate shelter options to help people stay off the street in a COVID-19 safe way. Of those, 300 will be temporarily leased hotel rooms and 125 will be new units of enhanced shelter space. The new Salvation Army facility fits in the latter category.

King County leased the SoDo space in case it was needed as a "quarantine, isolation, and recovery center" during the pandemic. So far, the building hasn't been used for COVID-19, but the city and county utilized it as a smoke shelter during this year's wildfires. The county plans to move its Salvation Army-run basic shelter programs to the facility in the near future, as well. Judging from the address, the location is a Tesla service station. Cozy?

According to Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson from Durkan's office, City Hall is considered an overnight, or basic shelter, because "people line up at night, sleep on a mat on the floor, and leave during the day." City Hall's basement and lobby can fit 80 beds each for people who need a place to sleep. In the new facility, Hightower said, "clients will now have 24/7 access, access to showers and hygiene, meals, and case management." The city projects the new shelter can accommodate 275 beds.

At the end of October, Seattle City Council President Lorena Gonzalez sponsored a budget item to keep City Hall's overnight shelter capacity intact. The price tag for maintaining those services was just over $1 million. Gonzalez acknowledged that the viability of the proposal depended on HSD's ability to find a service provider to manage the City Hall shelter since The Salvation Army was already in the process of vacating the space.

Herbold was taken aback in that meeting. She said she "had no idea there was a plan to end" the shelter until she saw Gonzalez's legislation. Herbold reflected on City Hall's over 20-year history of providing shelter for the homeless. "It's a really important statement about the city's commitment to use its own resources and facilities to support folks who are living unsheltered," Herbold said.

In fact, City Hall, which opened in 2003, was planned with shelter space in mind. Before the current City Hall replaced it, the city's old Municipal Building hosted food service and overnight shelter for homeless men, according to a 1999 planning document for the new building. The document stated that "these programs should not be reduced with the construction of the new Civic Center and could be integrated on the site with a dedicated entry and potentially a dedicated level providing a sense of privacy for those needing services."

Okay, this is kind of irrelevant, but look at this mock-up of the outdoor plaza and hanging gardens from the 1999 plan.
Okay, this is kind of irrelevant, but look at this mock-up of the outdoor plaza and "hanging gardens" from the 1999 plan. City of Seattle

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, City Hall didn't start sheltering people until 2006, when it opened its doors as an emergency weather shelter. In 2013, City Lab reported that City Hall started providing overnight shelter in the basement. Then, in 2018, the city opened the lobby space for supplemental overnight shelter.

Six of nine council members supported Gonzalez's legislation (Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, Andrew Lewis, and Lisa Herbold signed on as co-sponsors), but it didn't make it into the final budget package because the city couldn't find a provider to run the site, the council learned in a Tuesday budget meeting. Hightower said the city would "likely need to run a recruitment process" in order to find a provider for the shelter because of "staffing limits," and because "providers are stretched thin."

As it stands, the city is focusing its efforts on non-congregate options "given the continued impacts of the pandemic," Hightower said. In August, the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC) reported 19 cases in its shelters since mid-July. Of those cases, 63% came from a small, shared shelter facility. "These recent positive cases have again highlighted the need to abandon congregate shelter settings," DESC stated.

Additionally, Hightower said that the new 24/7 facilities and their access to hygiene services, meals, and case managers "have been proven to be more effective in helping people end their experience with homelessness." The city is stationing a "Rapid Rehousing provider" at new shelter sites in order to "produce faster and more successful exits to permanent housing," according to a press release from yesterday. Durkan's goal is to move "approximately 231 households" into a rapid rehousing program funding by the federal COVID-19 Emergency Services Grant.

The council isn't moving away from basic shelter strategies, though. A Sawant-sponsored budget item to spend $655,000 on 24-hour basic shelter operations for facilities run by SHARE/WHEEL made it into the council's current budget package.

"Because there isn't enough shelter space overall," Sawant said in a budget meeting at the end of October, "I think we need to protect every shelter option." The city only had 600 basic shelter beds before City Hall cut its overnight program.

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In yesterday's budget meeting, Herbold said she hoped Durkan would consider re-opening the City Hall shelter in the near future. Select Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda agreed with Herbold.

"We should be offering shelter," Mosqueda said, "And it should be additive to whatever [shelter] is added since space is limited, especially downtown." But, her concern was how to make that basic, congregate shelter safe during the pandemic.

For now, the City Hall facility will still function as an emergency shelter for extreme weather events (think Snowpocalypse, Smokepocalypse, or other climate change-caused extremes) or as a surge shelter in case other places reach capacity. The council set aside funds in the 2021 budget for extra janitorial support in case the space becomes necessary.

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