Officer David Hockett will warm you up.
  • Thanks to Mike!
  • Officer David Hockett will warm you up.
Beginning on Sunday night, when temperatures dipped below freezing and the city readied its emergency response plan for Monday's snowy forecast, the Seattle Police Department was preparing outreach of its own, in the form of a blue-and-white SPD van outfitted to give homeless people a free ride to one of Seattle's emergency shelters.

"Our concern is that homeless people out on the streets may not have access to phones or the news," says Sgt. Paul Gracy, who's driven the so-called cold weather outreach wagon, along with four other officers, since the program began four years ago. "They may not know there’s a cold front coming in or where the emergency shelters are."

So at 9:00 p.m. each night, SPD officers drive the cold-weather wagon around the downtown core to locations they know people camp at, contacts the people they find, and asks if they would like a ride to a shelter. "Most people are polite and courteous when we approach them," says Gracy. "We're just checking to make sure they're okay—that they're breathing, that they don't have frostbite and they're cognizant, and then to see if they want a ride someplace warm."

The van can hold up to 15 people and their belongings, including shopping carts. But Gracy says that some homeless people are undeniably weary of jumping into a SPD van and taken for a ride. On Sunday night, a quarter of the 68 people officers contacted accepted a ride to a shelter; last night, roughly one-fifth of the 58 people contacted got in the van. "If they don't want to go, we leave them alone," says Gracy. "We don't force anyone to move unless they're on private property and we've been contacted by the owner." He adds that many homeless people declined the ride because they said the emergency shelter kicked them out too early—at 4:45 a.m.—so SPD relayed this concern to the mayor's office. "They're now extending emergency shelter hours until 6:00 a.m.," says Gracy.

The van will be deployed tonight from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., with sandwiches to give out. SPD patrol officers citywide have also been instructed to ask homeless people they encounter if they need a ride to an emergency shelter.