By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
There is no privacy inside ward F. The stalls are wide open with no doors or screens. Even the tiny dressers are made of transparent plastic. So as we pass, we see not only cots and blankets, but the actual belongings inside the drawers—coffee creamer in plastic bottles, for instance.
This vision of the future of homelessness, to the uninitiated, can seem frightening.
Granted, compared to almost any other shelter, the converted hospital ward is luxurious.
On a tour of the homeless shelter at the edge of the Chinatown-International District (CID) this week, reporters saw a vast, echoing cavern filled with these stalls, where unhoused people are meant to live for indeterminate periods of time. The tour was arranged by the office of King County Executive Dow Constantine, which has been criticized for not doing enough outreach to the CID about plans to expand the shelter complex.
The director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, Leo Flor, who led the tour, said it was important for people to recognize what they had done and not “make assumptions.”
Indeed, the greatest difference between this shelter and past shelters is space. Formerly a car dealership, the vast vaulted building is so tall that echoes are lost in the shadowy ceiling above the lights.
Advocates for the new shelter say that it provides so much space, compared with past shelters, that people will be able to finally sleep without worrying about their belongings being stolen or their persons being harassed or attacked.
It also provides much greater protection for its residents against the spread of contagious diseases.
Flor emphasized the space as we stood inside the cavernous hall with stalls stretching almost out of eyesight, it seemed. He described it as a paradigm shift over older congregate shelters.
“People are not packed together,” he said. “We used to have to get as many people as possible into as little space as possible.”
But critics say that studies and reports on the national level have condemned Seattle and King County as having a broken system which relies too heavily on shelters, rather than moving people on to more permanent housing.
Flor said the shelter was originally designed for COVID-19 patients but was never used for that purpose. It opened in 2020 during a season of superflu and when people were suffering from wildfire smoke inhalation.
Since November 2020, the Salvation Army has been operating it as a homeless shelter. In May, the King County Council voted to take over the lease when it expires next month. The county has signed on for a five-year lease.
Supporters of the shelter say that it is not meant for people to live there long term, just long enough for them to get off the streets and begin the recovery process that will eventually lead to more stable, long-term housing.
But Flor cited statistics that made it sound like at least some of those living there were establishing themselves in relatively permanent ways.
One-third of the 170 people living in the shelter are employed, he said.
One man with a ponytail and carrying a coffee cup meandered down the hallway between stalls, causing the Salvation Army staff to tell the television cameramen to turn off their cameras to protect his privacy.
Besides this man’s appearance, the stalls had been emptied of people before the media tour.
Supporters of the facility point to the large number of bathrooms it has. They say this will give people the chance to take showers.
The facility has 43 bathrooms.
Flor repeatedly said that if you provide unhoused people with bathrooms, they will use them.
“People would always prefer to have a place to go when there is a bathroom,” he said.
There has been heavy criticism of unhoused people urinating and defecating on property in the CID and other areas But it was still not immediately clear how safe residents of the shelter would feel.
Flor did not respond to a question about the lack of walls for the stalls, leaving them open.
Nor was it immediately clear how residents would be kept safe while inside.
A fact sheet handed out at the end of the tour said the site would continue to be staffed by security around the clock, seven days a week.
But there were no security guards inside the shelter, only outside, checking visitors in and out.
Still, supporters of the shelter say such issues would likely be resolved by individual service providers as they take over various aspects of running the shelter.
(In a statement, the county clarified, “Salvation Army has two guards at the entrance 24/7, and more security was needed for the protest that day. Security is also inside with a site manager, site supervisor and site monitors all throughout the shelter 24/7.”)
Meanwhile, expansion of the shelter has apparently been delayed. A fact sheet previously shared with the Northwest Asian Weekly in August slated expansion of the shelter “to be completed by the fall of 2022.”
But Flor pushed the timeline back.
A sobering station, the first part of the expansion, will be put in, at the earliest, in the beginning of next year.
A high acuity behavioral center, for those suffering the most trauma, will come later and does not yet have a service provider to run it.
The entire expansion is expected to be completed by spring of next year.
But the plans are fluid.
Originally, the county planned to offer space for about 50 RVs. That has now been scaled back to a service center for four to five RVs at a time.
“They will come in; we’ll repair them for free, and they can cycle out,” said Flor. Flor also offered up a plan for how to clear the unauthorized tent encampment on the side of the shelter.
During an exhibition of tiny “pallet” homes—the size of backyard sheds—he said these dwellings would first be offered to those living in the encampment, encouraging them to move.
The next phase would involve placing more of the tiny pallet homes inside the encampment itself.
Workers from the King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA) are already developing relationships with those in the encampment to further such work, according to the fact sheet.
One of the tiny pallet homes had small windows the size of a large dinner plate.
When asked if the media tour was a recognition that KCRHA had not done enough outreach to the CID, Flor bristled. “I want you here to see what we’re doing here,” he said. “We have to start with a common understanding of what works rather than what they think …” But his remarks faded out with the rush of cars and trucks on the freeways overhead.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.