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UW researchers see ‘compelling’ results from bringing homeless into hotels

King County has been working to keep its homeless population safe from coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

At the start of Seattle’s COVID crisis, there were concerns about the spread of the virus at homeless shelters. In order to mitigate that, King County officials moved a cross-section of the region’s homeless population into hotel rooms, and the results were more than researchers could have ever hoped for.

King County reducing shelter concentrations, moving people to hotels

Rachel Fyall and Gregg Colburn, both professors with the University of Washington, helped conduct a study to figure out the large-scale effect of being in a hotel versus nightly shelters. What they found was that the stability of a hotel afforded benefits, regardless of whether there was a pandemic to worry about.

“What this setting allowed them to do is start to think — instead of just, how am I going to get through today, I’m going to start thinking about what my life looks like a month, or six months, or a year from now,” Colburn told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

That saw across-the-board improvements to the lives of those who were brought into hotels. Participants were shaving and showering regularly, getting three meals a day, and were more frequently attending medical appointments.

The downstream effect is that without having to worry about day-to-day survival, their attention could instead turn toward improving their respective situations long-term.

“When you’re living in crisis — which, you know, emergency shelters are named emergency shelters for reason, it is an emergency — when you remove the emergency, when you remove the crisis, people start to say, ‘I want to pursue a degree. I want to get a job. I want to find my housing,'” Colburn described.

Additionally, researchers found that there was a “significant” decrease in 911 calls compared to the frequency typically seen at standard overnight shelters.

King County works to prevent spread of coronavirus among homeless

“Conflict is somewhat common in a shelter setting because people are in crisis and they’re very close to one another,” Colburn said. “And so people repeatedly in the interview said, ‘It was really nice if I was somehow having an issue with another person, I could just go up to my room, close my door and relax a bit,’ and that deescalated situations.”

And while these findings were conducted within a relatively short time frame, there’s still optimism surrounding what it could mean for the post-pandemic future.

“Those who work in the shelter system have been saying for years, we need to think of something better because this is suboptimal,” Colburn noted. “And so I’m not grateful for this crisis at all, but I am grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate some pretty compelling findings.”

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