Seattle councilmember: Removing homeless camps without shelter options ‘a cruel, wasteful game’

Oct 12, 2021, 8:35 AM | Updated: 10:58 am
Seattle homeless camp...
A Seattle homeless camp. (Photo: Rob Harwood)
(Photo: Rob Harwood)

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis published a report Monday, detailing the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the city’s homeless crisis, while mapping out plans to increase shelter capacity well into the future.

Seattle councilmember touts ‘win-win’ approach to addressing homeless camps

As Lewis describes it, the report laid out “a clear connection between COVID’s impact on Seattle’s shelter system and the stark increase in visible homelessness.”

It’s estimated that the city’s shelter capacity decreased by 223 beds by the end of 2020.

That was at least in part attributed to an approach dating back to spring of 2020, when the city’s strategy surrounding homeless shelters began to move away from congregate options. The goal was to allow for more social distancing among Seattle’s homeless population in the early days of the pandemic.

The short-term result was “dramatically reduced supply,” the report notes, but a significant increase in “shelter quality.” That higher level of quality was driven by nearly 200 new hotel shelter beds, which are currently set to phase out of operation in early 2022.

The opening of two hotel shelters also coincided with the highest number of shelter referrals and arrivals the city has seen since it first began collecting data. A previous report from Seattle’s Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem Team (or HOPE Team) released in August 2021 largely credited those hotels for a 132% increase in Q2 shelter referrals in 2021.

That said, the latest report released by Lewis found that there are still over two-and-a-half as many requests for shelter than the city is able to accommodate.

King County reducing shelter concentrations, moving people to hotels

Moving forward, Lewis stressed the need for city council to ramp up “future investments in shelter, outreach and homelessness housing in the next budget,” with an especial focus on permanent shelter options. His hope is that with higher quality shelter choices that operate on a less temporary basis, the city can have more success relocating people living in homeless encampments.

In early 2020, Seattle’s Navigation Team reported that, at the time, the city had an estimated 12 available shelter beds on average per night, often leading to many in encampments opting not to accept offers of shelter during clearances.

“Threatening to remove an encampment doesn’t solve the underlying problem of unsheltered homelessness,” Lewis said in a Monday news release. “Quite the contrary: removing encampments without providing shelter and services just moves people around in a cruel, wasteful game of whack-a-mole.”

“The data suggests that when more suitable shelter spaces become available, more people move indoors,” he added.

In the HOPE Team’s August report, nearly half of Seattle’s Q2 referrals were to hotel shelters. During a mid-April clearance of a homeless camp near Seattle’s Meany Middle School, all but one of the 41 accepted shelter referrals were to the newly-opened Executive Hotel Pacific space. A subsequent effort to clear Third Avenue in downtown Seattle saw roughly half of the 33 people living on the street in the area voluntarily relocated to hotels.

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Seattle councilmember: Removing homeless camps without shelter options ‘a cruel, wasteful game’