SEATTLE, Wash. — As COVID-19 worsened throughout 2020, so did homelessness. During a time when preventing the spread of the virus was first priority, it was nearly impossible to shelter people in the same space.
Claudia Balducci, the Chair of the King County Council in Seattle, says COVID-19 changed the cities' response to homelessness.
“People realized pretty quickly that we couldn’t continue to house folks in homelessness in these big congregate shelters where they were sleeping on mats on the floor or bunk beds in a big open room because it was too dangerous. There was too big a risk of transmission of the virus," Balducci said.
COVID-19 also left some local hotels empty, so the county leased them, allowing them to offer homeless people a private room. Dow Constantine, the King County Executive, says the evidence was right in front of them.
“We knew that we were onto something," Constantine said. “The difference between having a safe place to sleep and then being pushed out on the street and having your own room with a lock on the door was dramatic.”
“The answer to homelessness is housing," Balducci said.
In 2020, the Washington legislature gave them the authority to raise the sales tax to accelerate getting people into housing. The pandemic, combined with this opportunity led the county to purchase its first hotel: the Inn at Queen Anne. Constantine says they have about five more hotels that are in some stage of negotiation.
“People felt safer, they felt calmer, they did better with their mental health, they did better with planning for the future, there were fewer incidents, less conflict," Balducci said.
They got direct feedback about what these rooms meant to people experiencing homelessness.
“I have a door I can close. I feel safe. I can sleep. There is a place for my belongings. I don’t have to carry them around with me all the time or worry about them being stolen," Balducci said. “Instead of being in crisis mode all the time. You can’t plan for your future when you’re constantly dealing with the crisis of the moment."
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on a single night in 2020, roughly 580,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States.
“I think that this is an opportunity for every community that’s experiencing homelessness," Constantine said.
King County wants to be a model for the rest of the country. They say spending money on the front end instead of the back end can create results.
“If you’re a taxpayer, you’re paying for that because people end up in hospitals, they end up in jails, very expensive services that all taxpayers contribute to," Balducci said. “Over time you’re going to save money because you’re going to have a lot less emergency intervention that is so expensive and frankly doesn’t solve the problem.”
They expect to have about 1,600 people off the streets and into permanent housing by the end of next year, a reality they feel will drastically change their community.
“We are going to show the public that this works and by doing so I believe we will build support to do more of it until we finally turn the tide on this crisis," Constantine said.