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Caring for the Homeless Challenged by Winter Weather, COVID-19

Caring for the Homeless Challenged by Winter Weather, COVID-19

This winter, thousands of people are living on the streets in communities across Washington State. Homelessness is not a new challenge for local governments, but this year the coronavirus has forced homeless shelters to limit the number of beds they can offer, leading some local governments to scramble.

This blog post will look at a few examples of how jurisdictions have planned to care for some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens while also preventing the spread of COVID-19.


The standard model of providing temporary shelter for homeless individuals in crowded, indoor spaces immediately presented problems when coupled with a highly infectious disease. Complicating this is the fact that winter-weather shelters — temporary emergency shelters that open when winter weather sets in — are frequently located in partner institutions (e.g., older churches, community centers) that may not be well-ventilated and are often dependent on volunteers, some of whom may be at high risk of contracting COVID-19, to keep their doors open.

Last March, the state’s Department of Commerce made $30 million in COVID-19 Emergency Housing Grants immediately accessible to every county for the purposes of creating more emergency housing (and other services) available for people experiencing homelessness and/or others who could not isolate at home due to possible exposure to the coronavirus. Each of the 39 counties received an initial grant of $250,000 plus additional funding, dependent on the number of homeless persons living within their jurisdiction as measured by the annual Point-In-Time Count.

Based on proposals presented to Commerce, counties planned to employ a wide variety of tools to safely house individuals during the pandemic, including:

  • Providing vouchers for private market housing or rental units (Skagit, Okanogan, Jefferson, Benton-Franklin, and more)
  • Updating existing congregate shelters to meet COVID-19 health guidelines (Chelan-Douglas, Clallam, Clark, Island, Mason, Pacific, Thurston, and more)
  • Employing tiny houses or Conestoga huts (Pierce, Walla Walla, Island, King)
  • Adding amenities to support homeless individuals, such as public bathrooms or handwashing facilities (Kittitas, Clark, and more)

Below are three examples of how local governments are providing services to homeless individuals under the dual challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and winter weather.

King County: Using the Existing Hotel-Motel Network for Housing

When the first cases of coronavirus and information about the infectious nature of the disease emerged early this year, Seattle and King County sought alternatives for people staying in homeless shelters, both by relocating individuals and reconfiguring existing shelter spaces to allow for social distancing.

The county opened three isolation and quarantine sites and have additional options ready to open if needed. It sent prevention and infection control teams to homeless services providers to ensure these sites were meeting recommended best practices. The county also used mobile testing and other specialized teams to administer hundreds of COVID-19 tests as well as conduct coordinated follow up if COVID-19 was reported at an existing shelter.

Beginning in April 2020, the county leased hotel rooms in Seattle, Bellevue, Renton, and SeaTac, with management by four local housing service providers. A study by the University of Washington found that this approach led to fewer clusters and outbreaks of COVID-19 among individuals who stayed in hotels (than among those who remained in traditional, large-group shelter settings), and that those individuals also reported having improved physical and mental health, increased feelings of stability, reduced reported conflicts with other residents, and an increase in the ability to focus on long-term goals.

The county also worked with 16 jurisdictions with populations over 25,000 to apply for a separate Commerce Shelter Program Grant of $12 million in late 2020 to expand the shelter space available across the county, including increasing beds within existing shelters, increasing hours of access, adding new facilities, and distributing vouchers for hotels/motels.  

Kitsap County: Coordinating the COVID-19 Response, Supporting Partners with Resources

This past March, Kitsap County set up two sites to serve as recovery/isolation centers in large, camp-style conference centers to house people who are homeless but also those who were ill with COVID-19, or quarantining, or who lived with a vulnerable roommate(s) and were unable to self-isolate. These centers offer lodging, laundry access, food, and 24/7 security and oversight (by paid staff as well as volunteer). It also offers onsite medical personnel during the week and weekend telemedicine. 

Costs to operate the isolation centers were covered by Commerce funding, but that funding also helped to pay for the expansion of existing overnight homeless shelters to operate 24/7, for the creation of a new temporary shelter to serve the northern part of the county, and for 10 portable handwashing stations that the county will place in key locations to serve unsheltered individuals.

In addition to several long-term shelters operating in Kitsap County, faith-based groups normally open several temporary winter weather shelters beginning in November, but these groups have had challenges meeting COVID-19-related safety requirements and, more importantly, finding volunteers to staff these labor-intensive sites. The county’s Emergency Operations Center is supporting these winter weather shelters by providing shelter oversight and paid staff for shifts that lack volunteers, as well as supplying personal protective equipment to each site.

The county also offers guidance for its partner service providers and a referral process on when and how they can to get clients who are potentially ill with COVID-19 into isolation and/or treatment

Yakima County: Preparing for an Increase in Need          

For groups providing services to the county’s homeless population, the last few years have been very busy. Camp Hope, a temporary, outdoor, barracks-style encampment for adults was opened in 2017 in the City of Yakima, and a temporary, indoor winter weather shelter was also available during the winter months. In 2018, Camp Hope received approval from the Yakima City Council to operate year-round, and once this happened, the encampment brought in electricity, sewer, and water connections.

The City of Yakima has an ordinance creating a permit system for any religious organization wishing to open a temporary emergency homeless facility. The permit allows faith-based groups to operate an outdoor encampment, vehicle resident safe parking program, or an indoor overnight shelter for up to 275 days per calendar year.

This December a new, indoor winter weather shelter opened in Toppenish. It’s a collaborative effort between a half-dozen public and private agencies, including Camp Hope, the City of Toppenish, the Yakama nation, and more. It offers private tents for each guest (to reduce the transmission of germs, barriers separate tents), nightly dinners, supportive services, storage, dedicated isolation beds (for any guests with COVID-19) and transportation between the shelter and Camp Hope in Yakima if guests have nowhere to go during the day.

Yakima County’s Commerce Shelter Grant is being used to:

  • Provide portables to increase capacity at the year-round encampment (Camp Hope),
  • Purchase tents, sleeping bags, and HVAC systems to increase social distancing while still expanding capacity,
  • Fund a newly opened, youth focused shelter, and
  • Offer hotel vouchers to youth and others experiencing homelessness who do not have COVID but are not a fit for traditional congregate shelter due to COVID-related concerns.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.