In early 2020, when covid was at its height in King County, local government leased land in SoDo and built a center with 240 spaces on Sixth Avenue South “for assessment and recovery care for individuals who are not able to recover in their own homes, or do not have a home.” This SoDo facility was one of four, with the others in Shoreline, Interbay, and East Bellevue. The largest center was the one in SoDo with 240 spaces, accompanied by a 45-bed temporary enhanced shelter called the Recovery Cafe, “for people who need health monitoring for inebriation.” East Bellevue and Shoreline were tied for the second-largest center, each with 140-150 spaces.Interbay provided 72 spaces. 

Of the four centers, two have been chosen for expansion of homeless alleviation services. East Bellevue is perhaps the most long-ranging, with plans for a 100-bed men’s enhanced shelter and services center, 92 supportive homes for people referred from Eastside shelters, 360 homes for low-income wage earners, and a 10,000 square foot early learning center. This has a completion date of 2023 and will cost “about $186 million,” according to a press release from the King County government.

Plans for the SoDo shelter concentrate on preserving the status quo, with no current plans for people transitioning from the protection of shelter spaces into permanent homes. A press release from King County in March of 2022 says this complex “would consist of five projects and will cost nearly $66.5 million. It expands the existing shelter which now offer 270 spaces and “adds capacity for up 150 additional persons in separately operated and co-located services. The hub will also serve as a frequent site for other services such as the mobile medical unit and mobile behavioral services.” 

(The smaller shelters at Shoreline and Interbay appear to have been moved to different locations and are not facing expansion plans.)

While plans for the Bellevue project are specific and involve participation by the Plymouth Housing Group, the Inland Group, and Congregations for the Homeless, the SoDo complex will be “a partnership between King County, the City of Seattle, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.” The initial press release from King County Executive Dow Constantine “shared his proposal for the expansion, including a preservation of the existing 270-person shelter, with added capacity for additional enhanced shelter for “up to 150 persons in separately operated and co-located services”, including “micro-modular shelters, a sobering center, and supports for RV residents,” at the cost of “nearly $66.5 million.” 

Although the SoDo complex of five projects offers shelter space and treatment of behavioral health problems, unlike the Bellevue site there’s no planning for where these sheltered people will transition. At present, the existing shelter says at least 90 of their sheltered are employed but  they were unable to say in what capacity–part-time or full-time. (Even if some of the residents are fully employed at minimum wage, they’ll be hard-pressed to find an apartment in Seattle with that salary.)

The imprecise language used to announce the SoDo expansion has provided many different interpretations. The International Examiner reports the expansion will “add 150 units of shelter, tiny houses, a 40-person high acuity behavioral health shelter and other services.” The Northwest Asian Weekly gives King County President Debora Juarez assertion that the expanded shelter will bring the total occupancy to 420 people, but points out that it’s unclear whether this figure includes the approximately 50 people in micro-housing and “approximately the same number brought in by an RV camp, both on the same land.” The Seattle Times says the complex will provide “a total of 419 beds, adding room for RVs, tiny homes, and mental health and addiction treatment.” 

Within the Chinatown-International District, which is adjacent to the shelter expansion, this proposal puts a strain on the area, which already contains the 75-bed Navigation Center and the 152-bed William Booth Center, and has an abundance of homeless shelters within a mile of its borders. Residents of the District fear the creation of a “homeless ghetto” will destroy their community and they demand a voice in the creation of this five-project complex.

A recent tour of the existing SoDo facility was prefaced with the view of a squalid unsanctioned encampment that has sprung up outside the walled-in and locked shelter space. Although a spokesman said there were approximately 30 people living in this impromptu camp that appears to be served by two portable toilets set outside of their self-imposed boundaries, a person who works nearby said a substantial number of campers had been cleared out before the tour.

Within the wall of the existing facility, the contrast was sharp. The surrounding street was as clean as any in South Lake Union and the shelter space was positively antiseptic. The spaces are the size of a small bedroom, each with a single bed and ample room for the occupant’s belongings, but without a door that will provide privacy. (The building’s glaring warehouse-style lighting is turned off at night to allow occupants a night’s rest.) The immaculate bathrooms are unlike many other shelters in that they provide private cubicles, with doors for toilets and showers. This, a spokesman admitted, is because the facility had been originally constructed for covid patients and privacy for personal hygiene was provided with them in mind.

The shelter occupants receive three meals a day, delivered from the kitchen of the William Booth Center across the street (and within the CID, it bears repeating.) The shelter is 24/7, allowing occupants to remain in their spaces during the day if they wish and giving them a place to hold what they carry with them. Unlike the facility that will succeed it, this shelter isn’t low-barrier. If occupants are found drinking or using drugs, they have to leave. According to a spokesman, at least some of the ejected are now in the unsanctioned encampment next door.

An assembled “pallet shelter” was open for inspection. This is a prefabricated and insulated shed, with just enough room for two cots on opposite walls, although a spokesman said most would be for single occupancy unless the occupant wished otherwise. This space is grim, with less area than the three-sided rooms within the shelter. The one advantage is privacy with a door that can keep the outside world at a distance. “These will provide every service but plumbing,” a spokesman said. Toilets and showers will be placed nearby in what is called, on the map that was provided to the tour group, the “micro-modular enhanced shelter.” 

Across from this is the “Existing SoDo Shelter” and the “Enhanced Behavioral Health Shelter.” Beside it is a “Temporary Sobering Center.” Across the street is the nebulously identified space that is called “RV Support.” One spokesman told a member of the tour that this wouldn’t include permanent parking spaces for RV occupants. The additional area of the 6-plus acreage is given over to two parking spaces, a “Provider ‘Fusion’ Office,”  “Warehouse 3 Temp. Property Storage,” and a “Future Additional Services Space.”

A question posed by a member of the tour group as to whether the occupants of the unsanctioned encampment and the unsheltered who live on the streets of the CID would receive priority occupancy within this complex went unanswered, unlike the Bellevue project which will be filled with “people referred from Eastside shelters.” There was no reply to the question of what was the next step beyond transitional housing nor an answer to what would be done with the unsheltered of the CID and SoDo who refuse space within this shelter. 

There are so many unanswered questions. What is clear is that the residents of neighborhoods near the shelter complexes in Bellevue and in the CID are going to need support. Community services and amenities such as parks and libraries are going to receive a new influx of patrons, and the auxiliary components of the unsheltered population such as drug dealers and sidewalk thieves’ markets need to be deterred from moving in. 

Community participation in the planning of shelter complexes is a key part of the process. People who have made their homes in the impacted neighborhoods must be assured that these projects won’t jeopardize their security–and measures to make this happen must be codified as requirements of county, city, and state governments.

No matter where we live, all residents of King County bear the responsibility of ensuring that solutions to the unsheltered emergency are equitably spread throughout the region and that no existing community suffers because of adjacent shelter spaces. This is on all of us. Stay informed. Speak up. Make government officials listen and take appropriate action.