In July, King County announced the purchase of a Silver Cloud In hotel that would serve as supportive housing for the chronically homeless in the Eastside. Since that purchase was made, many residents have expressed concerns about public safety and displeasure with the way the facility was planned with little input from the community.
The purchase was part of the Health Through Housing initiative which levied a sales tax in the county to be used to purchase hotels with the intent to convert them to supportive housing with on-site behavioral health, substance abuse counseling and occupational support services.
However, residents in cities like Redmond, Federal Way and Renton, where hotels have been purchased under the program, have knocked the approach as excessively expensive and dangerous to the surrounding community.
On Sept. 2, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and the Director the Department of Community and Human Services in the county, Leo Flor held a virtual town hall webinar during which residents could ask questions and raise concerns about the program. The webinar was scheduled to last two hours but its duration approached five hours due to the abundance of public comment from residents.
County officials like Executive Dow Constantine and Leo Flor have many times cited a University of Washington study that they claim shows the effectiveness of a housing-first approach to homelessness as the theory that the Health Through Housing program is rooted in.
Constantine has said that the study suggests the effectiveness of providing basic shelter to those who are chronically homeless before giving them the behavioral health services they need, rather than providing housing contingent on certain conditions, like first quitting drugs or getting a job.
“You can’t go through something transformative if you have to sleep outside,” Flor told residents.
But community members are concerned that this program will provide nothing more than a free ride for those living on the streets. Flor said there would not be a “set time” in which someone would have to move out of the facility after being admitted.
During the county’s Sept. 2 webinar, many residents raised concerns with the county’s policy that seems to allow the use of drugs inside the facility. Other residents were worried that the facility would attract unsavory characters from around the region, posing a threat to children attending and commuting to several schools in the area.
“A lot of these questions start with the premise that each of these people are dangerous,” Balducci said. “That is not the case.”
She added that the people the facility will aim to help and serve are already out in the community and that she believes it would be no less safe to house them in the facility than it would be to leave them sleeping on the streets.
Some residents believed the program’s facility in Redmond would be used to “import” the homeless from Seattle.
Flor, who has held many community engagement events with residents in communities where Health Through Housing hotels have been purchased, said that in every city, including Seattle, residents hold the belief that the homeless originate from somewhere outside of the community.
Redmond residents also took issue that there was no community vote or input allowed on the issue before the purchase was made, a concern also shared by residents in other communities where hotels have been purchased for supportive housing.
When asked why there was no community involvement or input on the decision the city gave this written response: “Neither the purchase of this property nor the permit application requires community outreach.”
Redmond did say that the county conducted outreach with neighboring businesses, city partners, and the general community.
The county has maintained that cities will be involved with choosing a healthcare provider that will staff the facilities. It is not yet clear exactly what staff will be hired or whether there will be on-site security, a question raised during public comment.
A representative from the Housing Development Consortium asked county officials about how the facility protocols would incorporate racial equity when choosing who to admit to housing.
Flor said the facility will have a requirement to house specific proportions of residents of certain ethnic backgrounds, with the goal of providing housing to more Indigenous and Black individuals, two groups that make up the largest proportions of the roughly 6000 homeless that currently sleep outside in King County.
As for the cost effectiveness of the program, Flor compared the cost of one year of supportive housing to the cost of some of the other social systems in which a chronically homeless person may end up without help. He said the cost of placing an individual in supportive housing for one year is equal to the cost of an individual spending 30 days in jail or even 3 days in the hospital.
He also said jail is one of the least effective forms of rehabilitation for the chronically homeless, especially when compared to the housing-first approach.
Since some of the first Health Through Housing hotel acquisitions, the county has maintained that the cost of purchasing housing space in hotel buildings is far cheaper than the cost of having to construct housing. They also have touted the economic slowdown to local tourism amid the pandemic as an opportunity to buy struggling hotels at a much cheaper price.