construction worker stands atop building shrouded in wildfiresmoke 2020 — photo by carolyn bick

City to Open New SoDo Smoke Shelter, but Durkan Does Not Commit to Opening Any More Buildings, Leasing Hotels to Serve as Smoke Shelters

by Carolyn Bick

Though the City will be opening a new smoke shelter in SoDo, Mayor Jenny Durkan in a Sept. 11 press conference did not commit to opening any more government buildings or to working on leasing the mostly empty hotels and motels in downtown Seattle to serve as emergency smoke shelters for people experiencing homelessness.

Joined by Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC) Health Officer Jeff Duchin, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and other city health and infrastructure officials, Durkan announced that the already unhealthy air quality was expected to worsen, due to a super-massive plume of smoke from Oregon’s wildfires coming into Washington State, and that the City of Seattle has decided to stand up emergency shelters for people experiencing homelessness. She said she and health officials had been weighing the decision “all week,” because congregate shelter sites have been shown to increase the likelihood of novel coronavirus transmission.

But when the Emerald asked why the City wasn’t more prepared for this kind of situation much earlier in the year, given that wildfire seasons have become increasingly worse, due to climate change, and that officials knew at the outset of the pandemic that congregate settings would make conditions worse, Durkan insisted that the City was prepared and had been preparing for it. She pointed to two places being used as socially distant shelters for people experiencing homelessness: Fisher Pavilion, which can hold 80 people, and Exhibition Hall, which can hold 130 people.

However, as Erica C. Barnett of The C Is For Crank pointed out, the City could open libraries and other government buildings to house unsheltered people. It appears the City could have prepared these places to house people in a socially distant way to protect them from the wildfire season several months ahead of time. Durkan did not address this, despite the Emerald bringing up these buildings.

When the Emerald asked if the City was looking to work with hotels and motels in downtown Seattle to shelter people experiencing homelessness, since those would automatically be a socially distant way to house them, Durkan said that the City is “looking at all options, depending on how long this would last,” and that this would require the City to lease these buildings. She also said that there needs to be a way for service providers to be available in those buildings, and that the City would be working “within the budget constraints that we have.” 

She later added that this is the biggest hurdle to leasing private buildings as temporary shelter space. However, Durkan did not say how much this would cost or what options the City had considered, with regards to leasing those buildings and providing services like casework, for which she said the City is responsible.

Constantine also announced that officials have decided to open a smoke shelter in SoDo that will be able to house up to 77 people. The site, located at 1045 6th Avenue South, is an old warehouse the City of Seattle had already prepped to be an emergency COVID-19 recovery and isolation site but that it had never ended up using.

The shelter will be open 24 hours per day, and will open today starting at 3 p.m. and will remain open until Monday, according to a later press release from Durkan’s office. The press release also said that the Navigation Team will be doing outreach today to refer people to the shelter and is partnering with ride share services to get them there, with King County Metro assisting with transportation as necessary. Face coverings will be provided at the shelter.

Constantine said the site is equipped with no-touch hand washing stations, single beds separated by cloth partitions and places to store belongings. Because the building had been meant to serve as a COVID-19 isolation and recovery site, the air filtration system is enough to deal with the wildfire smoke. PHSKC staff will also be on-site to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and testing will be available.

Durkan also announced during the press conference that all parks, boat launches, and beaches will be closed to prevent people from going outside and breathing in the poor air. She also asked that people not flick lit cigarettes or matches anywhere outside or have campfires or barbeques. 

Duchin urged everyone who can to stay inside, close all windows and doors, turn on any air filtration systems, and only use recirculated air for air conditioning purposes.

At 12:00 p.m. on Sept. 11, the time of this writing, the air quality in Seattle stood at 197, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow site. This rating means that the air is unhealthy for everyone. Officials expect air quality to continue to worsen into the weekend, with conditions only beginning to improve this coming week.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.

Featured image: Shrouded in wildfire smoke, a construction worker stands atop a building in progress in Seattle’s South End on Sept. 11, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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