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Temporary Sheltering Options and Amenities for Unsheltered People

This page is a guide to temporary shelters, amenities, and policy approaches to assist cities and towns around Washington State address homelessness. It includes policy examples, municipal codes, and operations documents for specific shelter types, and overarching guidelines for all temporary shelter types.


The Department of Commerce (DOC) acts as the main coordinator of local and state-level homeless programs and resources through its Homeless Assistance and Preventions Programs and the Office of Homeless Youth.

Guidelines and Laws Related to Shelters and Encampments

One of the many questions that jurisdictions consider when opening or expanding shelters is likely who the shelter will serve. The guidance in this section applies to all forms of shelter on this page and provides anti-discrimination and human rights state or federal statutes, state administrative codes, or settled case law to help inform your decision-making.

Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, familial status, national origin, or disability in certain housing-related transactions. While the Act lacks clarity in defining a ‘residence’, and case law has not made it clear whether all homeless shelters are subject to the FHA, treating them as such is a prudent approach. Public Accommodations Laws — such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Title III and state a local laws — may apply when Federal Fair Housing Laws do not. For example, some providers and operators of housing implement criminal-background bans. However, that may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act because they have a disproportionate impact on Black American and Latin American populations, as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Grant funding may also be dependent upon the grantees’ compliance with federal, state, and local nondiscrimination laws, regulations, and policies. 

Whom will we serve? When making decisions about providing shelter, your community will want to determine whom to provide shelter for. For example, Port Townsend prioritizes U.S. military veterans, physically disabled persons, persons aged 65 and older, and victims of domestic violence, as indicated in their Interlocal Agreement with Jefferson County.

Gender-segregated facilities and gender identity

In 2015, the Washington State Human Rights Commission (HRC) adopted rules requiring that individuals be allowed to use gender-segregated facilities, such as restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, and homeless or emergency shelters, that are consistent with their gender expression or gender identity (WAC 162-32-060). For example, persons who are listed on their birth certificate as male but identify as female cannot be denied access to a women’s restroom, locker room, or other gender-segregated facilities. Local governments and other covered entities must comply with these rules.

State and federal limits on government regulation over religious organizations

Washington State has authorized religious organizations to provide shelter or housing to homeless persons on property that the entity owns or controls. The legislation limits a local government’s ability to regulate encampments, shelters, and car camping on such property and prohibits local governments from enacting ordinances or regulations that impose conditions on the provision of homeless housing, and from charging permit fees in excess of actual review and approval costs. Under certain conditions, homeless housing may be exempt from local zoning laws. A government may, however, impose regulations necessary to protect public health and safety.

Policy Tip: If your jurisdiction contracts with a religious organization to provide shelter services, ensure that your city attorney has reviewed the contract for potential “religious instruction” issues.

Exemptions from state building code requirements

WAC 51-16-030 provides permission for cities and counties to adopt exemptions from state building code requirements for indigent housing. 

Shelter and housing types and terms change over time. Commonly used terms have been provided for ease of reference.

Temporary Shelter Types

Our downloadable Quick Guide to Temporary Shelters includes links to ordinances, operations guides, and job descriptions.

Severe-weather shelters

Length of stay: overnight

Increasing numbers of cities and counties open cold-weather or severe-weather sleeping shelters and/or weather-related day centers between the months of November to March when persistently cold temperatures or snow accumulation warrant it. Such shelters are usually staffed by volunteers, not paid staff.

Kitsap County’s Severe Weather Shelters program is a good example of how volunteers can be recruited and trained. The county’s Department of Emergency Management runs the shelters with community partners. Volunteers must complete an application and training prior to service; the county has a third-party shift-management system in place for volunteers to sign up for shifts. To alert those needing shelter that beds are available, the county uses the 211 service.

Temporary shelters

Length of stay: up to 2 years

This is the most common type of shelter available, with overnight beds and limited hours of operation. Many have a curfew. Some may serve a light dinner and/or morning coffee and snack. Shelters manage bed lists in different ways: morning sign-up for beds, first-come-first-served, referral from a coordinated-entry entity, or by issuing tickets. Some shelters have a pre-determined number of beds allocated to different entities to streamline bed assignments. A housing assistance case manager may be scheduled for specific days and times during the week to assist clients with support services.

Code Highlight: Some temporary shelter municipal codes include a Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) as a submittal requirement. This section of code typically forms a GNA Advisory Committee to communicate between the community and the shelter operators. The City of Puyallup has a detailed GNA in PMC 20.72.070

Enhanced overnight shelters operate similarly, but offer 24/7 on-site support services and case management, including housing navigation, and may have few requirements for entry.

Youth shelters

Youth shelters serve children and young adults ranging in age from 12-24. Children and young people experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable, both out on the streets and in shelters. Many of these youth have experienced trauma, abuse, or addiction. Some become homeless upon exiting foster care (aging out) or behavioral and criminal justice systems. According to research from 2016, the risk of homelessness for LGBTQ youth was 2.2 times the risk for heterosexual youth, and the highest rates of homelessness were reported by black LGBTQ youth. 

Authorized Temporary Tent, Tiny House, and Building Encampments and Safe Parking Programs

Temporary tent, tiny house, or building encampments provide shelter for homeless individuals and may rotate between various host properties. They usually have managers, a security team, and a code of conduct for residents.

The state has granted broad authority to religious organizations to offer shelter or housing to persons experiencing homelessness on property the organizations own or control and has limited a local government’s ability to regulate such shelters. However, local governments may regulate conditions necessary to protect public health and safety, so long as they do not substantially burden the decisions or actions of a religious organization.

The statutes are RCW 36.01.290 for counties, 35A.21.360 for code cities, and 35.21.915 for other cities and towns. They specify that any conditions imposed by cities and counties:

  • Must be necessary to protect public health and safety, and
  • Must not substantially burden the decisions or actions of a religious organization regarding the location of housing or shelter for homeless persons on property owned by the religious organization.

Some jurisdictions have enacted regulations consistent with RCW 36.01.290 that outline additional rules and procedures related to temporary homeless encampments. These are provided in the Resources section.

Practice Highlight: In winter of 2019, the City of Bellingham hosted a temporary safe camping site of about 20 tents for men and women. During that time, 5 of the 35 individuals living there were connected with permanent housing. The nonprofit HomesNOW operated the site.

Safe parking programs allow people living in vehicles to park in off-street parking lots, which can be safer for them than parking on the street. Sometimes host organizations offer access to bathrooms, showers, cooking facilities, or links to other social services. They may require background checks of participants or have a security patrol. Safe parking programs help unhoused people to retain and store the property they have, and to reduce risks to their health and safety while sleeping. Safe parking can help employed people keep their jobs and keep their families safe and together.

Unauthorized Encampments: Removal, Seizures, and Searches

Municipalities with unauthorized encampments may determine removal is necessary. There are due process requirements for the removal of unauthorized encampments on public property, according to case law from the Ninth Circuit case Lavan v. City of Los Angeles. Prior to clearing encampments, notice must be given to camp residents. A 72-hour minimum notice is common and is to be posted on each tent or structure to be removed.

If outreach workers are present during encampment removal, they can assist encampment residents with shelter options or alternative locations to go to. Personal property collected during the encampment removal must be held for a certain amount of time so that it can be claimed by the owner. For example, the City of Seattle’s Unauthorized Encampment Removal Policy provides for a holding period of 70 days.

Tents and shelters set up on public property and used for habitation are protected from unreasonable searches under the Washington State Constitution. In State v. Pippin, Mr. Pippin was arrested when the police found drugs in his tent.  The court ruled that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before searching an encampment tent.

Practice Highlight: The City of Olympia declared an emergency in July 2018 in response to hundreds of people sleeping unsheltered, about 300 of whom were camping in the downtown area. They declared the emergency using Ord. No. 7146, providing a factual basis for their public health emergency. This enabled the city to obligate funds and enter into contracts outside of a bidding process, and it exempted them from SEPA. After declaring an emergency, the city amended its Emergency Housing Facilities code (Chapter 18.50 OMC). The city opened a mitigation site — a temporary managed site — in a city-owned parking lot, with 115 tents.

Cost per Intervention

Counties are required to report all expenditures for homeless housing projects in their community by funding source (federal, state, and local). (RCW 43.185c.045). The table below is taken from the DOC’s 2018 Annual Report on Homelessness and is included to give a rough estimate of the cost of shelter, housing, and prevention options. DOC combines data from the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data to arrive at cost per day and cost per exit totals shown in the table below. This is not a complete list of options DOC collects data on.

Homeless Housing Project Expenditures for State Fiscal Year 2018
  Rapid Re-Housing Emergency Shelter Transitional Housing Homeless Prevention
Beds 4,452 20,349 6,660 7,163
Total expenditures $42,389,212 $50,102,694 $18,616,067 $27,169,538
Cost per day per household $49.30 $31.43 $30.11 $14.34
Cost per successful exit per household $9,528 $8,992 $14,658 $5,770

Other Amenities

There are mobile and non-mobile options for municipalities to offer hygiene and health facilities to unsheltered residents. A variety of amenities that are in use in Washington State are listed below, with brief details of each. Health and hygiene facilities, whether portable or fixed, reduce environmental and public health risks and increase the outreach opportunities. 

  • Toilet facilities: In the absence of public toilets, some municipalities are siting portable toilets with dumpsters nearby to address unsanitary conditions and health hazards that develop when people experiencing homelessness do not have access to basic amenities.
  • Shower and laundry facilities: Many city-owned community or recreation centers open their shower and toilet facilities on a regular schedule to those experiencing homelessness. Some cities also offer free-of-charge laundry programs in partnership with private laundry businesses. There is also a national nonprofit that funds one free laundry day per month for homeless and low-income individuals and families in eight Washington state locations
  • Clothing programs: Without regular access to hygiene and laundry facilities, many experiencing homelessness rely on clothing programs to replace worn and dirty clothing. These are sometimes paired with feeding programs and commonly run by faith-based groups.
  • Secure storage: Communities may offer secure storage in connection with permitted encampments, tiny house villages, or mitigations sites. Secure storage helps people attend medical appointments, remain employed, and access necessary services more easily. The City of Olympia uses large lidded carts inside of shipping containers that users can access daily during two-hour periods in the morning and the evening. Portland, Oregon has operated a storage program since 2016. In 2019, the facility employed two staff, was open from 7 AM to 6 PM, and cost $120,000 to operate.

Navigation/service centers

Found in larger cities, these facilities primarily offer hygiene services and often include mail service and limited schedules for service providers.

  • Vancouver Navigation Center — Offers showers, restrooms, laundry, storage, mail, phone charging, free clothing. Local agencies offer mental health counseling, case management, job search and transportation assistance, and limited food service, all in an effort to help transition people from the streets and into housing. The contract for this center is in the Resources section.
  • Urban Rest Stop —These are run by the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle, and there are three locations. Each has restrooms, laundry, and shower facilities for individuals and families at no cost. Other services available on a limited schedule are: veteran’s outreach, ORCA lift, Public Health, free haircuts, and employment or training outreach.

Policy Tip: Is your zoning code clear with respect to use and process? Do your regulations define what constitutes a permanent shelter, transitional housing, or day centers? Are they clear about which zones allow these uses and what process applies to permit applications to site such facilities? Clear regulations can help both applicants and residents to understand the process for permitting, review, and approval.

Team Approaches

There are local governments that use outreach teams with a multiservice approach in moving people living on the streets into a shelter and, ultimately, housing. Some cities award human services grants to fund outreach programs administered by other organizations, while others have their own outreach teams. Many of these teams include both mental health professionals and law enforcement that work together in the field.

  • Olympia’s Crisis Response Unit has six behavioral health specialists working in the field who are trained to de-escalate situations, evaluate needs, and connect people with services voluntarily. The team members get to know local residents living on the street and assist by giving bus passes, necessities like diapers and blankets, or by driving them to medical services or shelters.
  • Redmond’s outreach program employs a full-time specialist that works alongside neighborhood resource officers, who are part of the city’s bicycle unit. The specialist is available via police radio to respond to homeless-related calls for service. The program’s main purpose is to connect people to services and resources.
  • Mount Vernon’s Problem Eliminations & Reduction Team (PERT) is made up of staff from code enforcement, police, sanitation, parks, fire, library, development services, and legal departments and is facilitated by the mayor. It is not an outreach group and does engage in field work together. The group has identified issues affecting the city that related to homelessness and has constructed a workplan. The 2018 PERT plan includes budget and staff time estimates, progress notes, and measurements or deliverables. An example of completed PERT actions is here. It includes total hours and costs for encampment cleanups, new full-time employees hired, code revisions, and more.
  • Snohomish County’s Homeless and Direct Outreach team is a partnership between the county’s Office of Neighborhoods and law enforcement. The team is led by a police sergeant and includes Law Enforcement Embedded Social Workers (LEESWs). This team assists people experiencing homelessness, those with mental illness, and frequent jail utilizers, connecting them with services and diverting them from more jail time.

Sample Documents Related to Local Governments

Codes and Ordinances for Temporary Shelters

  • In general, this brief, 2-page model municipal code for temporary homeless campsites includes definitions of shelter types, general requirements, authority of city manager, and types of infraction for intermitted sites.
  • Bellingham Ordinance No. 2018-10-019 — Establishes regulations for temporary shelters including building shelters, tent encampments, safe parking areas, and tiny house encampments. Includes zones in which shelters are allowed.
  • Bothell Municipal Code Sec. 12.06.160 — Puts emphasis on the application process, which must include “a narrative and drawings” that describes in detail how the encampment will operate, including how it will handle health, safety, security, and transportation. The application must consider all potential neighborhood impacts and outline a plan to mitigate these impacts. If the site is near a school or daycare, the applicant is required to seek advance discussion regarding the proposed encampment. It is notable that Bothell allows any organization to submit an application, not just religious institutions.
  • Chelan Municipal Code Ch. 17.13 — Limits the size of emergency and transitional housing facilities depending on the zone. Does not allow them in downtown zones. Also requires conditional-use permits for recreational vehicles and park models for  housing facilities.
  • Kirkland Municipal Code Ch. 127 — Temporary use chapter, permitting a use that would not otherwise be allowed in the zone. Regulations prohibit all children and pets. Outlines minimum requirements for the code of conduct such as no weapons, on open flames. Limits permit to 60 days, not to exceed 92 days, and may not be at same site more frequently than once every 36 days.
  • Puyallup Ordinance No. 3195 — Adds notification and neighborhood meeting requirements and amends the appeals process, adding zones and setbacks

Codes and Ordinances for Encampments

Lynnwood Municipal Code Ch. 21.74 — A comprehensive and fairly common example of temporary homeless encampment regulations. Only faith-based organizations are allowed to be a sponsor.

  • Maximum size 100 people
  • No unaccompanied children
  • No more than 90 days in a single location
  • 20-ft. setback, downward facing lighting, and sight-obscuring mechanisms
  • Host must address parking and transit requirements in the application
  • A code of conduct is required that that must address the “health, safety, and welfare” of the campers, as well as neighborhood concerns
  • Application for permit must be filed and then distributed to the public/neighbors for comment.

Shelton Municipal Code Ch. 20.47 — Allows for 3 types of encampments:

  • Type A: house up to 12 individuals but must be located on grounds owned by a faith-based organization
  • Type B: house up to 30 individuals for up to a 7-month period and must be located on grounds owned by a faith-based organization
  • Type C: house up to 30 individuals for up to a 6-month period but only in vacant properties located in districts zoned as low-intensity, mixed-use or commercial-residential mixed. This type does not have to be located on property owned by a faith-based organization. 

Ordinances Declaring a Health Emergency Related to Homelessness

These ordinances declaring a health emergency due to an increase in homeless encampments and often include action to mitigate conditions

RFP’s, Contracts and ILAs

Some local government enters into contract with other entities to provides services to homeless individuals.

Studies, Plans, and Reports

  • Kent Severe Weather Shelter Operations Guide — Explains when and how the shelter will be activated, hours of operation, and includes contact information. Provides for men, women, and families.
  • Monroe Homeless Policy Advisory Committee Prevention Focus Recommendations (2019) — Offers a comprehensive matrix of recommendations with a multifaceted approach that includes public safety, legislation, programs and services, public safety staffing, prevention, education campaigns, support for youth, jobs and training, advocacy, drug and mental health treatment/counseling, shelters and housing assistance. This resource can be a starting point for jurisdictions looking to form their own framework for action.
  • Snohomish County Temporary Shelter Program — Has short- and long-term strategies that include specific actions intended to reduce pressure on the county’s overburdened shelter system and facilitate entry to permanent housing as quickly as possible. Causes of homelessness in the county, equity of access to those in need, and a cross-system approach are just a few of the items covered.
  • Walla Walla Consolidated Annual Performance Evaluation Report (2018) — Includes goals and results for CDBG and explanation of challenges when goals were not met.
  • Washington County (OR) Severe Weather Shelter Response Plan — This model template offers guidance on staffing, volunteer recruitment, intake procedures, record-keeping and more. A thorough consideration of operational and other aspects of running a shelter.
  • Washington State Department of Commerce: Homelessness in Washington State (2018) — Provides current conditions and challenges; homeless system performance; rural successes; recommendations. Appendices include data and data sources.

Policies and Policy Development

  • Bremerton Planning Commission Memo — Includes temporary encampment zoning code amendments that extend to more than just religious institutions due to increased need for shelter. Addresses size, setbacks, requirements. Memo includes attachments with siting map, proposed amendments, Kitsap County Point-in-Time count overview, and findings and conclusions of the commission.
  • Poulsbo Behavioral Health Navigator Program Policy — The program gives police access to a Behavioral Health Navigator who connects individuals to services and resources.
  • Tacoma Enforcement and Removal Policies and Procedures Relating to Unauthorized Encampments on City Properties — This policy prioritizes removal based on hazards, criminal activities, health hazards, etc. Notice and removal requirements, including property not claimed within 60 days may be destroyed. Provision of alternate locations/housing/shelter, outreach procedure, and cleanup procedure; notice after removal, and logging, storage, and recovery of property.

Recommended Resources

Anti-Discrimination Information and Memoranda

Data Sources and Tools


Department of Commerce Emergency Solutions Grant utilizes federal funds for communities to provide street outreach, emergency shelter, rental assistance, and related services for adults and families with children experiencing homelessness. For eligible counties and cities that are not direct recipients of HUD.

Commonly Used Housing Terms

These terms are taken from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • Continuum of Care Program (CoC) is designed to assist individuals (including unaccompanied youth) and families experiencing homelessness and to provide services to help them move into transitional and permanent housing. The CoC Program is designed to promote community-wide planning, strategic use of resources, and improve coordination and integration of resources and programs.  
  • Coordinated Entry is a centralized or coordinated process designed for client intake assessment and referrals. A centralized or coordinated assessment system covers the geographic area encompassed by the CoC, is easily accessed by individuals and families seeking housing or services, is well advertised, and includes a comprehensive and standardized assessment tool.
  • Emergency Shelter is any facility, the primary purpose of which is to provide temporary or transitional shelter for the homeless in general or for specific populations of those experiencing homelessness.  Also referred to as ‘temporary shelter’
  • Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) is a local data system for client-level data and data on the provision of housing and services to homeless individuals and families and persons at risk of homelessness. Each Continuum of Care is responsible for selecting an HMIS software solution that complies with HUD's data collection, management, and reporting standards.
  • Housing First is an approach to quickly connect those experiencing homelessness to permanent housing. It has no or limited treatment or sobriety preconditions, behavioral contingencies, or other barriers to entry. Prior approaches required that those wishing to exit homelessness had to participate in and graduate from short-term residential and treatment programs before obtaining housing.
  • Rapid Re-Housing (RRH) is an intervention designed to help individuals and families to quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing. It has three core components: (1.) housing identification; (2.) rent and move-in financial assistance; and (3.) RRH case management and services.
  • Supportive Housing is community-based, safe, affordable housing with onsite voluntary support services. This housing has no time limitations, so long as the tenants meet their tenancy obligations.
  • Transitional housing is short-term or temporary housing intended to move homeless individuals and families into permanent housing within a reasonable (usually 24 months) amount of time. This is largely designed to serve deinstitutionalized homeless individuals and others with mental or physical disabilities, and homeless families with children.

Last Modified: April 02, 2021