Holiday Closures Could Leave City’s Unsheltered In the Cold

by Carolyn Bick

During the holidays, most indoor public spaces have one thing in common: they’re closed. And while that’s not usually a problem for those who have homes, it is a problem for those without them.

Though the 2019 Count Us In report showed a year-on decline in those living unsheltered, there were still 3,558 people without roofs over their head in the City of Seattle. Still, the city will not be making any special accommodations or preparations for the holidays, when warm public spaces like libraries and community centers will be closed.

Northlake Village resident and longtime homelessness advocate Sean Smith said he understands that there may be a lot of bureaucracy and difficulty in opening public spaces that aren’t normally staffed during holiday hours. At the same time, though, this is just confirmation of his view that the city isn’t doing enough for those experiencing homelessness –– and this lack of resources has serious consequences.

“Unsheltered people die. It really is that simple,” Smith said.

In an email to the Emerald, Seattle’s Department of Human Services Director of External Affairs Will Lemke said that the city has severe weather shelters that it opens when the temperature falls below 25 degrees Fahrenheit for multiple days, or when there is more than an inch of snowfall. He said that the city has other resources it activates as part of its emergency management plan, during prolonged weather events, which he said is when the temperature again falls below 25 degrees for multiple days, or if there is a foot of snow.

Despite multiple requests to do so, he did not quantify the number of days required for the city to either open severe weather shelters or activate other resources in a prolonged weather event scenario.

The city opened the weather shelters over the Thanksgiving holiday, due to consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures, but Lemke said there are currently no plans in place to open them over the holidays, unless conditions call for it. Even then, there are logistical issues to consider, he said.

“Usually, the City has access to facilities at Seattle Center for these shelters. However, due to the ongoing construction at KeyArena, we did not have our usual space available for overnight shelter and day center. We have other options available (like the municipal tower) and it all depends on timing, conditions, and logistics,” he said in the email.

Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness’ Executive Director Alison Eisinger said in an email to the Emerald that “missions and well-meaning people” are a boon to people experiencing homelessness, during the holidays. But when it comes to the city?

“Frankly, the most people can hope for is that severe weather happens and additional shelter space is opened up with enough notice for people to hear about it,” Eisinger said. “I’m sorry to be a downer, but there you have it.”

It doesn’t help that the city’s Navigation Team, which is responsible for homelessness outreach and policing, has dramatically ramped up sweeps of homeless encampments in the last year, often citing obstruction as a reason for said sweeps. In 2017, obstruction made up about 25 percent of sweeps. In 2018, it was 46 percent. In the first quarter of 2019, it was 82 percent. Smith sees this as the uptick in obstruction claims as the Navigation Team finding ways around the rules to get rid of more homeless encampments. Calling the process uninformed, he condemned what he sees as a re-traumatization of an already vulnerable population.

“Being made homeless, in the first place, is a very traumatic event. What is the point of retraumatizing people?” Smith said. “Without places for people to go that are warm and safe, then we are going to see a lot more deaths.”

At the time of this writing, according to the most recent data from the King County Medical Examiner obtained by Ashley Archibald at Real Change News, there have thus far been at least 150 deaths of unsheltered people in 2019. A list obtained by SHARE/WHEEL shows 153 total deaths, 109 of which occurred outdoors, in a public place, or through violence. Several of those have been suicides. In November alone, there were 11 deaths, three of which were deemed suicides.

Though Smith isn’t currently living unsheltered, he and other Northlake residents live with the prospect hanging over them, following difficulties at the village. Northlake is one of the city’s nine tiny house villages, all of which are currently run by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). In the autumn, the City of Seattle alleged that village residents associated with former village subcontractor Nickelsville “harassed LIHI and City staff, tightly controlled site access although no longer recognized as the subcontractor, and have actively interfered in LIHI’s ability to meet the contracted objectives of the program.” This lead the city to threaten an early December closure of the village; but, recently, LIHI announced it’s in talks with a local church to sponsor the village through March 2020.

Smith sees the village’s potential closure during one of Seattle’s colder months as another sign of the city’s unwillingness to work with the “broad spectrum” of people in the homeless community, and stick with “cookie cutter solutions that are never going to work.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated there were 11,199 people living unsheltered in Seattle. This number is the total amount of people experiencing homelessness in King County.

Featured image by Susan Fried