Pandemic Shows Pathway for Homelessness Relief

By United Way of King County, on October 20, 2020 | In Covid-19, Fighting Homelessness, News, Racial Equity

If there is a tiny sliver of a silver lining of the pandemic, it’s that it has forced local officials to find alternate ways to provide better shelter options to people who are experiencing homelessness in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

One of the solutions King County came up with was to pay for hotel and motel rooms for individuals to keep them socially distant, which did help to reduce infections, according to new research from the University of Washington.

A significant additional benefit of sheltering people in hotel rooms is that it has provided a glimpse into the transformation individuals undergo when given the opportunity for the stability that comes from having a safe place to stay, even if only temporarily.

United Way of King County staff noticed early in the pandemic the positive effects of providing a room with a bed and a bathroom to people who otherwise would have slept outdoors or in a crowded, congregate shelter.

Lisa Brooks, impact manager at United Way, talked about the noticeable change during a COVID-19  livestream update in May. She said those who were given motel rooms had found “new hope” because they had a “place with a bed and a sink to wash their hands.”

“We’ve been hearing amazing stories about the transformation that can happen within a person—having that stability and dignity of a room of their own,” Brooks said. “Those are things we need to keep doing.”

“Improved Physical and Mental Health”

The University of Washington’s research provides actual data for what Brooks and others at United Way had already observed: that providing people a place to stay, like a hotel or motel room, did more than prevent the spread of the virus.

“Individuals who moved to area hotels — an arrangement managed by the County and social service providers — reported improved physical and mental health, and the ability to focus on long-term goals such as obtaining housing, employment and education, rather than simply focusing on day-to-day survival,” the University said.

Lauren McGowan, United Way’s senior director for ending homelessness and poverty, said we should be doing more of that.

“We knew before the pandemic that we didn’t have enough shelter. Now we know we need more shelter, but we need to be better about it,” said McGowan. “With hotels and hotel rooms sitting empty because of a lack of tourists, we need to use those rooms because it is the best thing to do for people experiencing homelessness.”

King County this summer provided funds to move several hundred people from shelters into Red Lion Hotels in the area, which met some resistance from local governments but ultimately offered some relief to those individuals.

Since then, the county proposed using a .1% sales tax to fund the purchase of single-room properties like motels and nursing homes to provide housing for about 2,000 chronically homeless people.

While the proposal fell short of its goal, the county will move ahead with a scaled-down program.


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