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Emergency shelter occupancy around 70% during Seattle’s recent cold snap

Officials struggled to get unsheltered individuals inside during the severe weather due to transportation and staffing needs.

Editor's note: The above video on western Washington's homeless shelters aired December 22, 2021.

SEATTLE – Occupancy at Seattle’s six overnight emergency shelters during the recent cold snap, which saw temperatures dive well below freezing, only hit around 70% for all 12 days of the emergency response.

The data, as reported by the King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA), shows that from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3, the city's emergency shelters saw a usage range of 65-77%.

Among the 27 sites across the rest of the county, there was an 80% usage rate.

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During the 12 days of severe weather, King County saw temperatures dip below 20 degrees and snow levels drop to sea level. 

However, the only day that saw occupancy exceed availability was on Jan. 1, when demand increased while the number of beds decreased, according to a KCRHA presentation prepared for the city’s Public Assets and Homelessness Committee on Wednesday.

In the presentation, KCRHA lists a number of challenges that explain the difficulty in getting unsheltered individuals inside during severe weather, including transportation, staffing and COVID-19 mitigation.

KCRHA is planning to debrief with Seattle and each sub-region around the county in order to develop ways to address these challenges.

The authority also plans to develop protocols and emergency funds for future weather events.

Meanwhile, cold-related emergency calls skyrocketed during the cold snap, with one person dying from hypothermia on Dec. 26. The 34-year-old was found half-naked at the Northgate Transit Center, and authorities believe he was having a mental crisis.

KCRHA, which is officially taking on the region’s homeless response this year, estimates that there were more than 40,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in 2020 across the entire county, which is a huge increase from the previous year's Point-in-Time (PIT) count. 

According to the 2019 PIT count, which is a one-night hand count, there were roughly 11,200 homeless individuals in King County. 

The KCRHA data for 2020, which comes from the Department of Community and Human Services, was collected via numerous service providers and is considered much more accurate. 

CEO Marc Dones has managed to grow their organization from just one employee to 32 in its first year with a budget of about $162 million for homeless services in 2022.

They’ll be looking to access better data to get a more solid handle on how many individuals are unsheltered throughout the region with plans to redesign the homeless response system by next year.

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