Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Economist, World Policy Journal, and Seattle Magazine.
Each night, 80 beds are laid out in the lobby of city hall. It’s meant as a temporary solution—but long-term fixes are proving elusive.
On a recent Monday night in Seattle, Salvation Army staff members spent half an hour arranging green cots in an emergency homeless shelter. They set out thick blankets, earplugs, and facemasks, in hope of making the space, which opened in July, slightly more comfortable for the people who would sleep there that night.
By the time the doors opened at 9:30 p.m., at least a dozen people had lined up to come in. The team checked in returning guests and sat down with any first-timers to go over their “rights and responsibilities”: no drugs or alcohol, no fighting, and no reentry.
It’s the same check-in process at all Salvation Army emergency shelters, but this one has a glaring difference: It’s in the lobby of city hall.
Seattle’s government first opened its headquarters to the homeless in 2006, making room in the basement for beds when severe weather struck. In the years that followed, the number of people experiencing homelessness ballooned in Seattle, and in 2013 the basement began operating as an emergency shelter year-round. In 2015, the city declared a state of emergency over homelessness. Almost three years later, the situation seems to just keep getting worse.
The decision to use city hall’s lobby as an emergency shelter reflects a city in crisis. Since declaring the emergency, the homeless population here has increased by 1,500 people, putting the estimated homeless population above 11,600. While Seattle is the 18th most populous city in the U.S., it has the third largest homeless population. Only New York and Los Angeles have more people experiencing homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 report.
“We all have to contribute to solutions to this crisis, which is why we’re opening City Hall [to] more people each night,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a recent statement.
The move doubled the number of people who can sleep in city hall, with 80 beds each in the lobby and basement shelters. Like its downstairs neighbor, the shelter in the lobby is an adult, co-ed night facility. There are bathrooms, but no showers. A housing navigator helps those looking for specific resources or alternative housing options. Every morning around sunrise, the staff helps each resident wake up and head out, so they can clean up in time for city hall to reopen.
Lynne Sprague is one of those people. Three years ago, the 69-year-old woman and her service dog, “Mz Wigglz,” were living in an apartment. But a bout of bed bugs and a last-minute rent increase left her homeless.
Since then, she has moved through a series of shelters, landing most recently at city hall.
“They put up with no baloney, and it’s quiet when the lights go out,” she said during a recent night at the building. “Most of the time you don’t hear someone yelling, screaming.”
There’s no question this shelter is helping Sprague and others by giving them a safe place to sleep. The basement is nearly full every night, while the lobby is typically at about 50 percent capacity. But it can also be common for the same people to continue to sleep in these bare-boned facilities for months, even years.
Sprague has been sleeping there every night for three months. She said she was approved for the city’s senior housing program two months earlier, but had yet to be placed—a process that she said can take three to four months.
“It’s okay, but it’s not the same thing as stability,” she said.
Homeless advocates tend to agree, and say that’s where Seattle’s efforts fall short. The city is trying a handful of stopgap measures that are helpful in the moment, but don’t address the underlying problem.
The largest portion of this year’s homeless response budget—44 percent, or $34 million—is reserved for emergency services, including shelters, permitted villages, and transitional housing. Twenty-nine percent of the budget is for more permanent housing, and only 8 percent is dedicated to helping prevent homelessness.
Seattle operates over 2,000 shelter spaces, but they are almost filled up every night, according to the mayor’s office. This summer, Durkan embarked on a broader effort to increase temporary housing by 25 percent in 90 days, through projects like shelters and tiny home villages. This measure gives at least 500 more people a place to sleep.
“As long as we’re in emergency mode, it’s smoke and mirrors. It’s moving bodies around. It’s trying to deflect,” said Sara Rankin, director of Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, which conducts research and analysis on the homeless. “It’s trying to create the impression that we’re addressing the underlying problems of homelessness, when emergency shelters simply don’t do it.”
Of course, Seattle has tried bigger moves to address the crisis. The most well-known effort came earlier this year when local leaders imposed a Head Tax to fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives. It was expected to raise $47 million a year by taxing the city’s largest corporations, including Amazon and Starbucks. But those companies waged a campaign to kill the tax, and a month after it was signed into law, the city council repealed it.
Durkan also launched the Rental Housing Assistance Pilot Program about four months ago, offering temporary rental and utility assistance for certain low-income households. The mayor’s office reported that over the next three years, Seattle will likely see an additional 2,500 affordable rental housing units funded by the city and more than 1,900 Multifamily Tax Exemption affordable units.
While shelters are certainly needed and helpful, Rankin said the city should prioritize permanent and supportive housing programs and affordable housing, rather than emergency services and shelters. But that approach tends not to be politically attractive to lawmakers, she said.
“I don’t doubt anybody’s intention. I think everybody wants to solve homelessness,” Rankin said. “But wanting to solve homelessness and researching, analyzing, and coming up with a coherent, effective plan to do so are two totally different things.”
Often times, emergency shelters can be a good first place for staff to evaluate a person’s situation and determine the appropriate housing and resources for them, said Scott Moorhouse, director of the Salvation Army William Booth Center. But he said he has also noticed a clear need for the city to add more enhanced, 24/7 shelters and more affordable housing.
“There’s actually a need for multiple programs, transitional, clean and sober. I don’t think there’s really one answer for it,” he said.
Durkan said the city hall shelter and the rest of the newly added spaces for the homeless are needed as a way to offer immediate relief, and that they can act as a springboard to help them move to permanent housing. Seattle has a variety of programs to help people move on from emergency services, including Rapid Rehousing, a temporary rental subsidy program, and Permanent Supportive Housing, a rental subsidy and intensive support program.
But socialist City Council Member Kshama Sawant said the city’s leaders need to think in much bigger terms when it comes to finding a solution.
“If there were just 10 homeless people in the city and the city expanded a shelter to make sure they weren’t homeless, that wouldn’t be a problem,” Sawant said. “We’re talking about a city that is massively unequal.”