Homelessness Authority Weighs in on Battle Over Future of Renton Shelter (and Shelters in Renton)

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA) held a previously unscheduled meeting of its implementation board last night to discuss how to respond to a City of Renton proposal that would shut down a shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) at the Red Lion hotel in Renton. The legislation would also ban most, if not all, homeless shelters from the city.

Essentially, the legislation would create a temporary “COVID deintensification shelter” zoning designation for the Red Lion, which would expire in June, when the hotel’s 230 residents would be forced to leave the premises. At the same time, it creates new restrictions on all facilities serving homeless residents — including a 100-bed maximum and a requirement that appears to make providers responsible for the behavior of homeless people in public spaces — that homeless service providers say are impossible to meet.

Some members of the RHA implementation board, including Lived Experience Coalition members Sara Rankin and Harold Odom, argued that the board needed to take a strong stand in favor of the regional approach Renton signed up for when it joined the RHA. In addition to being “onerous” and undercutting the ability of any homeless service provider to operate in Renton, Rankin said, the legislation represents a “fracturing” that “undercuts the whole spirit and substance of what the purpose of this regional authority is supposed to be.” The Sound Cities Association, which includes Renton, demanded and got changes to the authority’s governing structure along with two seats on the implementation board last year.

Others, including Renton School District superintendent Dr. Damien Pattenaude and Church Council of Greater Seattle president Michael Ramos, argued that it was important not to alienate the Renton City Council by suggesting that the City of Renton didn’t have the right to set its own homelessness policy. “The question of the role of this authority is significant, and one of the underlying factors is the perceived imposition by the county of its [own] proposed solution on homelessness,” Ramos said. “We need to bring some of these cities into the conversation.” Ramos added that he would not sign off on any letter that didn’t express a willingness to work with Renton on a consensus solution.

In joining a regional authority, Renton agreed to the basic principles set down in the interlocal agreement, which include “housing first” principles, best practices, and evidence-based solutions. “Best practices” is generally understood to mean approaches that have a demonstrated record of success, which describes the Red Lion in particular and hotels as a temporary shelter option during the COVID-19 pandemic broadly.

Odom objected strongly to the idea that the regional authority should take a conciliatory approach when dealing with cities that want to split off from the region and adopt policies contrary to RHA principles. If the regional authority allowed every city who disagreed with some aspect of its approach to split off on its own, he said, it would mean a return to the same old system that has failed to reduce homelessness in the region for decades. “We have the five-year plan, the ten-year plan, and [we’re going to have] the 100-year plan if we continue going about things the way we have been,” Odom said.

Ultimately, the board voted to form a committee that will write a letter to the Council expressing some level of opposition to the legislation evicting the Red Lion tenants and using zoning to restrict homeless services. They’ll have to act fast: The Council plans to vote on the legislation Monday — a move that could prompt litigation from both DESC and the hotel’s owner, whose attorney said he “faced unbelievable discrimination and harassment, including from some of the folks who are advocating for this particular ordinance change.”

Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at PubliCola.

Featured image is attributed to Life as Art and used here under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.