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COVID-19 has shelter providers scrambling to protect homeless people against the coming winter weather

By Scott Greenstone, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE — On any given day before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary's Place in Seattle had more families calling to ask for shelter than it had beds available.

That changed after the outbreak hit and state and local eviction moratoriums went into place to help people struggling financially. This summer, Mary's Place had space for any homeless family seeking help — even though it lost almost a quarter of its 675 beds after closing shelters where people couldn't keep their distance.

"They were able to stay in their homes ... or they were finding other solutions," said James Flynn, chief program officer at Mary's Place. "Also, among some people, (there's) a hesitation to enter a communal space."

But now, as the weather cools and people run out of options, Mary's Place is once again beyond capacity, Flynn said.

With winter on the way, Flynn and other shelter providers expect more people who could manage living outside in the summer to seek shelter. What's more, federal money that's helped pay to move hundreds of people from crowded shelters into hotel rooms is set to run out in December.

That's left homeless advocates and service providers worrying there won't be enough space to safely house those who need to get inside.


"It's really hard to plan for a crisis that you see in the coming months because we're still dealing with the crisis that we're in," said Dan Wise, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services Western Washington. "But I am concerned that folks who have really high behavioral health needs are not going to have a way to get out of severe weather."

King County and its suburban cities are discussing opening cold-weather shelters as they have in years past, but the coronavirus, which spreads more easily in crowded, indoor spaces, complicates the effort. Five COVID-19 cases sprung up in a temporary shelter the county opened in Sodo last month to protect people living outside from the heavy wildfire smoke.

In a typical year, churches would be opening shelters for those who need to get out of the cold. But many churches are older and not well-ventilated to protect against the virus.

Burien has for the last two years opened the Highline United Methodist Church during cold weather — but that likely won't happen this year because the building doesn't have a modern ventilation system, said the Rev. Jenny Partch, the pastor.


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