Pass by the King County Administration Building at 4th Avenue at James Street in Seattle on an evening between November and March, and you’ll see a long line of about 50 people. They are waiting to get inside the men’s winter shelter that has, for many years, been hosted inside the building, thanks to funding from King County. The shelter has functioned on the loading dock of the building, in the lobby, and in other space, depending on the arrangements made between the building’s Facilities Management and the shelter provider, currently the Salvation Army. (The history of how this shelter came to be is a good story for another time.)
This is a pretty minimalist shelter: no beds, just mats on the floor. There’s access to a bathroom, but no showers. Dinner is not served, and until last year not only did the shelter not open its doors until 9.00 p.m., but men were specifically instructed not to line up before then. (Given that shelter is first come, first served, and that people who spent the night there previously have priority to sleep there the next night, this instruction is impossible to fathom, unless you accept the unspoken logic behind it: homeless people should not be visibly homeless. They should materialize 5 minutes before the shelter doors open, and dematerialize 5 minutes after they exit the building, at 6.00 a.m.)
Thanks to modest additional investments from Seattle and King County, and reasonable conversations with stakeholders, including the Coalition, last winter this shelter was expanded to double its capacity, serving 100 men each night. This expanded capacity lasted not only through the winter, but through the spring, and into the first two weeks of June. This unprecedented extension of Winter shelter revealed a simple truth: when decent indoor shelter is offered consistently, people want and need and use it — even when the weather improves. The additional 50 spaces were essentially full through May, the numbers dropping only when it was clear that the shelter would be closing, and people evidently determined that they would, once again, have to fend for themselves overnight as best they could.
Here is the letter I sent on behalf of the Coalition to King County Executive Dow Constantine and the Members of the King County Council, asking them to repeat the successful trial run of last winter and spring.
27 November 2013
King County Executive Dow Constantine
401 5th Ave. Suite 800
Seattle, WA 98104
Dear Executive Constantine:
I am writing to ask you to double the capacity of the winter shelter in the King County Administration building to 100 people as quickly as possible. I write not only on behalf of the Coalition’s member organizations, and the thousands of King County residents they support with food, shelter, services, and housing each day and night, but on behalf of the nearly three thousand people whom you and I know will be sleeping outside tonight. The bitterly cold weather this past week is a reminder that shelter is, quite simply, a matter of life and death.
As you noted at the last Governing Board meeting of the Committee to End Homelessness, even one person sleeping outside is too many. While severe weather and winter survival shelters have recently opened in several other parts of King County, I understand that the winter men’s shelter in the King County Administration Building has yet to increase to its maximum service capacity.
This expansion can be accomplished quickly, and for a relatively modest amount of money. Last year at this time, thanks to your support, and special additional investment from the City of Seattle, 100 men slept safely each night in the Administration Building shelter. This compassionate and efficient increase in capacity lasted for seven months. From November 15 through June 15 the original space for 50 men was full every night. The second shelter space remained at capacity as winter turned into a cold spring. Contrary to the shelter provider’s expectations, the second shelter space provided an average of 40 men dignified nightly respite even in May. There is no question about the need and desire for this additional shelter.
Our community’s commitment to ending homelessness should and must include responding to people’s emergency needs for safety, shelter, and connection, as well as the creation of stable, accessible, and affordable housing. We have come too far in the last eight years to accept anything less than an increased and energetic commitment to our common goals. As we prepare for the January 24, 2014 One Night Count, I hope that you will take swift action to ensure that 50 more people are sleeping inside on that night, rather than on the streets.
The Coalition is deeply grateful for your work and for the King County Council’s work to ensure that the budget passed this year includes support for shelter and services for homeless youth and young adults. I urge you to work with King County Council to secure the necessary resources that will allow building staff and the Salvation Army to rapidly enact the same life-saving shelter expansion as last winter.
As always, the Coalition on Homelessness welcomes close collaboration with our partners in local government in working to end homelessness for our King County neighbors today, tonight, and tomorrow.
cc: King County Council Chair Larry Gossett
King County Council Vice Chair Jane Hague
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn
King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott
King County Councilmember Julia Patterson
King County Councilmember Larry Phillips
King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer
Dan Brettler, Co-Chair, Governing Board, Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Gretchen Bruce, Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Greg Ferland, King County Community Services Division
Janice Hougen, King County Community Services Division
Mark Putnam, Building Changes
Adrienne Quinn, King County Community Services Division