by Erica C Barnett
This morning, Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a stern followup to his statewide order, issued Sunday night, closing restaurants, bars, and other gathering spaces and banning all gatherings of more than 50 people to contain the COVID-19 outbreak: “If you’re thinking about having a [gathering] with 49 people in the same room, think again.”
Directing his remarks at people over 60 or with an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to infection, Inslee continued: “you are at substantial risk because of this virus. I want to make a very personal and gubernatorial request to you: You need to self-isolate, starting right now, and that means you need to change the way you operate your life.”
“If your grandma is going out… to an art gallery, no!” Inslee said, his voice rising. “You need to talk to her and say, ‘You’re not going to do that for a couple weeks at least.”
King County Executive Constantine added that while it’s okay for people to take a “short drive,” they should make sure they don’t go too far from home so that they won’t have to use a public restroom.
But when asked about a different group of people vulnerable to COVID-19—the thousands of people experiencing homelessness who have health problems or are over 60—the advice from government officials was different. Instead of giving elderly and vulnerable homeless people the ability to self-isolate, the county has adopted a policy of “de-intensification”—opening more shelter spaces to allow people to sleep six feet apart.
Asked why the city and county are continuing to gather the most vulnerable homeless people in large congregate shelters, Dow Constantine, the King County Executive, pointed to the opening of a new shelter at Boeing Field “that is specifically for older and more fragile adults, and that is going to offer us the option to shelter [those people] instead of sending them out onto the street.” The airport space is currently serving as a shelter for 80 men over 55.
Obviously, vulnerable people are safer when they can sleep six feet apart, rather than crowded into tighter quarters (or forced “out on the street,” a cruel alternative no one has actually suggested.) But the difference between the official policy for homeless and housed people couldn’t be more stark.
If your grandma is housed, she shouldn’t go outside, play with her grandkids, or visit an art gallery where other visitors might be present. If she’s experiencing homelessness, her best option is to sleep in a room (and share a restroom) with dozens of other people who are uniquely vulnerable to getting sick.
There is actually another option—one that doesn’t involve putting vulnerable homeless people “out onto the street.” The county could offer hotel vouchers to every single homeless person who is over 60 or has an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to infection. This would undoubtedly be expensive, but perhaps not as much as one might expect—after all, hotels in Seattle have emptied out as tourism has dried up, making deals easy to come by.
And beyond the cost to local governments, it’s worth considering the moral cost of deliberately creating a two-tiered system, one in which the recommended strategy for staying alive in a deadly pandemic depends on whether you, or your grandma, are homeless or housed.
King County Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton said the county is providing some additional vouchers; I’ll update this post when I find out more about how many vouchers will be offered and to whom.
Meanwhile, the city’s Navigation Team was reportedly continuing to remove homeless encampments over the weekend. According to the Alliance for a Healthy Washington, the team of police and Human Services Department staffers towed away a trailer occupied by three homeless people at N 137th Street and Midvale Ave. N on Saturday, leaving the group to sleep with their belongings under a tarp.
HSD has not yet responded to questions sent over the weekend about why the city is continuing to remove encampments during the outbreak, and Mayor Jenny Durkan did not answer the same question when Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone asked it during this morning’s press conference.