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Hundreds of people have moved out of homeless shelters into hotels. Is it a better model?

A Red Lion Hotel in Renton that now houses 200 people from Downtown Emergency Service Center shelters in Seattle.
Facebook / Red Lion Hotel & Conference Center
A Red Lion Hotel in Renton that now houses 200 people from Downtown Emergency Service Center shelters in Seattle.

Counties and nonprofits have moved hundreds of people out of the region's crowded homeless shelters and into individual hotel rooms.

It's a temporary step meant to prevent an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. But some shelter operators say they already see added benefits, and the possibility of permanent changes to the shelter system.

"I think there is growing agreement among people engaged in this work that going back to the old way would be a huge mistake," said Daniel Malone, executive director of one of Seattle's largest shelter providers, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

DESC has moved 200 of its roughly 500 shelter guests into a Red Lion Hotel in Renton, under a 90-day agreement negotiated by King County officials.

That's half of the 400 people county officials and nonprofits have moved from shelters to hotels as a preventive measure. The tactic also is being used elsewhere, including Pierce and Thurston counties.

It means people who recently shared close quarters with strangers now have private spaces, with their own bathrooms and TVs.

"Our experience thus far in this environment is that it's been a lot sleepier," Malone said, adding that staff members are dealing with fewer interpersonal conflicts between residents. 

Malone spoke with KNKX about the benefits of private rooms over "congregant" shelters, and the prospect of continuing some version of this model even after COVID-19 fades. You can hear that conversation above.

"The clock is ticking," Malone said. "I'm pretty nervous that we've only got a little more than two months left with this arrangement and we've got to be thinking about what's next. And it's got to be something different than trying to cram all these folks back into the settings they were in before."

But he said it's unclear where the money would come from to transform the shelter system. 

Just four people from across DESC's 500-bed shelter system have tested positive for COVID-19, even as testing has expanded, Malone said.

A total of 161 people identified as homeless or working in homeless services across King County have tested positive as of April 25. Six people identified as homeless or "unstably housed" have died, county officials said.

"With such a highly vulnerable and concentrated population that isn't as able to engage in social distancing, I think you'd expect to see way more than a couple hundred cases by now," Malone said.

In addition to moving people into hotels, government and nonprofit officials have worked to spread out people who remain in shelters, open "hygiene stations," reopen bathrooms in libraries and parks, and create isolation and quarantine sites for people who can't recover from COVID-19 at home.

But Malone said he's still worried.

"I don't think that we have dodged the bullet and the bullet is gone now,” Malone said. “I think the bullet is circling back around. It seems to me that it's likely that it's just taken longer to arrive within these groups of people, and that it is starting to pick up now."

News HomelessnessCoronavirus Coveragecoronavirus
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.