‘It was too much’: Volunteer shelter operator says city politics overwhelmed tiny West Seattle shelter

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West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice and freezing temperatures approached Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in downtown Seattle, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The focus on downtown reflected an implicit assumption that most homeless people in Seattle live near downtown or could get there easily by public transport, using transit cards. or the free bus tickets that city outreach teams have distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. As of 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has managed a casual and informal shelter in the American Legion Lobby on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of homeless local residents during the coldest winter nights. . Initially, Hughes opened the building, which belongs to the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for homeless people to “dry off and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six” often sat under an overhang. in front of the building to protect against the rain. Later, when the temperature dropped until he was 20, “I couldn’t throw them out of the building,” so he started to keep the building open on the coldest night of the year.

“I started it because it had to be,” said Hughes, 74. “The gym is there, it doesn’t get used to, 95% of the time, so I decided it needs to get used to. “

Usually, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests per night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year is shaping up to be much like previous winters, until the county, town and Seattle weather included the shelter on their official and public lists of shelters available just after Christmas.

“I was sent a guy who had been hit by a car, fixed by the crisis clinic, and released on the street with a bus ticket and my address. He had difficulty walking. I am not a medical establishment. —Keith Hughes, Volunteer Operator, West Seattle Veterans Center Shelter

The result, said Hughes, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and all of a sudden I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health Clinic, and Navos Mental Health. [in Burien], wondering if I had room in my shelter. I am not a professional. I am not a mental health counselor. I am not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “run by three people with no training, no support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so people would volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances where shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations for which they were not underqualified, including “at least one mentally distressed person sent from another shelter” and a paralyzed man from the waist down. to the feet who involuntarily “shit all over the place” and had to be taken by ambulance to hospital.

“Someone brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from a violent family – they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and pants, so they brought her,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every phone number I could get my hands on for, say, a women’s shelter – I know very little about it – and no one ever called me back.

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically all the town did was add me to the shelter list and make my address public, which doubled the number of people who showed up,” said Hughes. “On very cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of whom were referred to me directly from mental health facilities. I was sent a guy who had been hit by a car, fixed by the crisis clinic, and released on the street with a bus ticket and my address. He had difficulty walking. I am not a medical establishment.

It’s unclear who made the decision to put the West Seattle site on the list of available shelters in the city and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD employee who now works as a senior advisor to KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside of downtown Seattle, and d ‘initially argued against the publication of the location of the shelter.

“The facility did not report being over capacity and was only at full capacity one night according to census figures provided. Keeping the open capacity hidden from the community seems to work against opening an emergency weather shelter. —Seattle Department of Social Services spokesperson Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Social Services, said the city needed to list the shelter once the city became a “funder,” which she did by agreeing to pay the bills. Utilities higher than Hughes average during official winter emergency. —The only reimbursement offered by the city. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, who (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional personnel, services and supplies associated with the winter shelters. that they exploit.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly announce the shelter is open. The refuge was listed in the larger news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) before the HSD listed it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on December 25, before the HSD shared it. also.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city was not primarily responsible for letting the people of Seattle know what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, city public information officers, including Franklin, have asked media to use and link to the HSD website in articles about available shelters; the KCRHAs blog post about winter huts also redirected visitors to the city’s website.

And although The Times included the site on its shelter map, its article described the location as a small shelter with “limited space for the local homeless population.” The West Seattle Blog, which targets a West Seattle audience, mentioned the site as part of a call for volunteers on December 22, and followed by several additional appeals for volunteers and donations after the city declared a winter weather emergency on Christmas Eve.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the authority had made efforts to contact local faith groups to help at the shelter after other organizations, including Operation Nightwatch and the Salvation Army, were unable to send personnel to West Seattle. Ultimately, the Westside Interfaith Network and other church groups came together to help meet the need for volunteers. Rick Reynolds, the director of Operation Nightwatch, said that “no one had asked” his organization, which is located in Chinatown / International Quarter, to staff the West Seattle shelter, but they wouldn’t. couldn’t do it anyway. “We are trying to provide relief to the Nightwatch neighborhood and the homeless people we already see at night,” he said.

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At the time, the city, and not KCRHA, was still responsible for emergency winter shelters; this responsibility was transferred to the county authority on January 1.

“With many pre-HSD mentions and the supporting funding provided, the addition to our list was in line with our supporting agreement and therefore the public should be able to know the location is available,” Franklin said. . “Further, there was never a request for deletion of information, and it would have been pretty much the reverse purpose of funding the emergency service to deny the fact that it is open to people in the cold needing shelter. The facility did not report being above capacity and was only at full capacity one night according to the counts provided. Keeping the open capacity hidden from the community appears to be fine against the point of opening an emergency weather shelter. “

Hughes sees it differently; If the city had planned to encourage people from across the city to come to the site, it should have provided it with warnings, personnel and resources, he said. “If they were to include the West Seattle shelter in that, it should have been included on the same type of base as the other shelters that were created just for the emergency,” he said. “If you want to send people, you have to send people, and they didn’t. “

Despite his frustration with local authorities, Hughes said he would not hesitate to reopen the shelter. In fact, when we spoke in the first week of January, the official “emergency” was over, but the shelter was still functioning well. “I’m still open and still getting calls from multiple agencies because the city and county emergency shelters have all closed,” he said. “Just this afternoon I got a call from someone in Virginia Mason who wanted to know if my shelter was open because they were unloading someone. I told them it was open. I’m not going to let anyone freeze to death.

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