As we enter this year’s winter season, the City of Seattle is in the midst of multiple crises including the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic downturn. Maintaining COVID-19 health recommendations as part of the City and King County’s shelter system remains a challenge facing our homelessness response system.
In the event of a major snowstorm or cold weather event, the City is capable of activating hundreds of short-term, temporary emergency shelter beds across Seattle for people experiencing homelessness. The City’s winter emergency response is coordinated by the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which partners with City departments like HSD to make preparations and ensure City programs and services are maintained during disruptive weather events.
As in years past, HSD has identified shelter spaces for an emergency response based on different scenarios, including a short-term weather event or a longer-term weather event. A short-term winter weather emergency response is activated when there is a snow accumulation in excess of 1-inch and/or forecasted temperatures of 25 degrees or below for multiple days. A long-term response is activated when the weather conditions significantly impact people living homeless, including snow accumulation of over 6-inches, 25 degrees or below for multiple days and/or a State of Emergency declaration. Both weather event scenarios may include other health and safety considerations such as a wind advisory or ice.
The temporary emergency shelters identified by HSD for use may include, City Hall, the Seattle Municipal Tower (SMT), and Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion. If needed, the response could be expanded to community centers and other City-owned facilities that would otherwise be closed during a snowstorm and therefore are available to use as temporary shelter. The City Hall and Fisher Pavilion spaces will be available for winter emergency response in mid-November once the Salvation Army relocates those shelter programs to the new SODO facility. Further, the Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall will be available as an emergency shelter when the current de-intensifying shelter relocates. HSD has also identified several other currently occupied temporary shelter spaces that could be used depending on the timing of the vacancy.
These temporary emergency shelter spaces will meet COVID-19 safety protocols recommended by Public Health-Seattle & King County and the Centers for Disease Control. The protocols call for additional COVID-19 screening for those experiencing homelessness, expanded space to allow physical distancing, hygiene access, and increased sanitation guidelines.
Past Winter Events
Over the first 11 days of February 2019, the Seattle area received over 20 inches of snow over multiple weather systems and experienced sustained temperatures nearly 10 degrees below normal. During this winter weather event, the Navigation Team was the City’s frontline response working extended hours to get those living unsheltered into shelter and providing transportation. Shelter and assistance were offered to over 715 individuals living unsheltered and some 162 individuals were transported to emergency shelters by the Navigation Team. The Navigation Team also distributed essential food and clothing that were donated by Costco, Nordstrom, Amazon and Starbucks.
During the cold weather and storms in January of this year, the team made 196 site visits during the severe weather event, making over 550 contacts with people living unsheltered. The team transported 44 people to shelter and made 77 referrals to emergency shelters during the course of the week. Despite the recent Council action to disband the Navigation Team, HSD staff will be available to help coordinate emergency sheltering efforts on the ground during a weather emergency. The Mayor’s 2021 proposed budget would reinstate these emergency functions, previously done by the Navigation Team, with a new outreach team, but that would need to be passed by City Council.