Seattle council floats using public library as emergency homeless shelter

Mar 3, 2022, 3:15 PM | Updated: Mar 4, 2022, 7:51 am
The Exhibition Hall at the Seattle Center converted into a temporary men's shelter on April 6, 2020. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Seattle City Council has expressed interest in using a public library building as an emergency homeless shelter.

That idea was proposed Wednesday when newly-appointed Seattle Chief Librarian Tom Fay provided an operations overview to the council. Councilmember Lisa Herbold directed a line of inquiry at Fay to determine the library’s position on using its space for emergency shelter capacity.

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“Does your plan consider the possibility of opening as a shelter— not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter?” Herbold asked.

Herbold clarified that the process would be structured similarly to how Seattle City Hall was used during the pandemic as a congregate shelter when the building was otherwise not in use. The Salvation Army staffed City Hall in 2020 with 70-80 shelter beds on the lower levels of the building.

Councilmember Herbold further explained that the shelter would only open when the libraries do not have sufficient staff for traditional use, such as in the event of a winter storm. In that event, she speculated that it would be possible to have nonprofit staff run the building as a congregate shelter.

“The answer to that particular question is ‘no’ in the sense of, if we are going to have a building open, there’s an expectation of the public that library services would be offered from that building,” Fay replied. “That is something that our staff are skilled and able to do, and that is why we would not generally consider that during our operations. Trying to maintain full services obviously requires skilled librarians to maintain building operations.”

“I would say many of our buildings would not lend themselves to that just due to the sheer size,” Fay continued. “Most of them are fairly small and don’t have open spaces that would really accommodate that. I know the shelter space down at City Hall is fairly large and wide open. That is not something that we’ve considered at this point.”

Fay added that libraries appearing to be open but also being in use as a shelter space could become a point of confusion for the public.

“That would be more problematic for us, as they would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered,” Fay opined.

“During the early days of the pandemic, Seattle Public Libraries saw the urgent need of people who rely on public restrooms, many of which were shut down,” Herbold wrote to MyNorthwest.

“They responded by partially opening five buildings, so that people could use bathrooms, even though library services were not available,” she continued. “Libraries are City-owned. We need them to bring a flexible spirit to the table during severe weather emergencies. Staffing constraints led to some library closures during our most recent storm. When these closures happen during life-threating events, why can’t some libraries operate as daytime warming centers, staffed with non-library workers?”

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Seattle council floats using public library as emergency homeless shelter