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Tuesday, October 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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King County will open west wing of downtown Seattle jail as shelter

A media tour on Thursday shows one of the rooms in the King County Jail’s west wing that has been empty for several years. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
A media tour on Thursday shows one of the rooms in the King County Jail’s west wing that has been empty for several years. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
By Scott Greenstone Seattle Times

King County plans to turn a wing of the downtown Seattle jail into a shelter for homeless people, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Thursday.

The county has one of the worst homeless crises in the nation, and for the third year since Constantine announced a state of emergency around homelessness, winter is approaching.

“As I look around and I see the number of people who are continuing to be out on the streets,” Constantine said during a news conference Thursday outside the King County Correctional Facility. “And then I see a vacant building right here in the middle of downtown Seattle, it seems to me that we really have a moral obligation to open that up and provide an opportunity for people to get in out of the weather.”

The west wing of the jail was used to house minimum-security inmates, but it was shut down to save money in 2012. Now it holds classrooms, staff offices and training spaces.

The jail wing will have 125 to 150 beds, will shelter mostly men and will cost around $2 million to renovate and turn into a shelter. Another $2 million will be each year spent on operating costs. King County hasn’t yet decided what service provider will manage the space.

While some in King County government and homeless advocacy feared putting homeless people in the King County Jail would send the wrong message, a spokesman for the executive’s office said that many providers in Seattle had some input on the decision. The executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the LEAD project manager for the Public Defender Association and the Rev. Carey Anderson of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church all lent their support in the news release.

Even Tim Harris, a longtime advocate for the homeless and director of Real Change, who told The Seattle Times last week that it was a bad idea, wrote in his column in Real Change that he had changed his mind.

“With homeless people dying in record numbers, and winter breathing chill and rain down their necks, we can’t afford to dismiss any option,” Harris wrote.

Others had mixed feelings about it. Sara Rankin, head of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law, said that she appreciates the lives the shelter will probably save, but opening up new shelters is not going to fix the homelessness crisis. She said the county should think about turning the jail into more permanent supportive housing, if that’s possible.

“Any intervention that saves lives is the right intervention,” Rankin said. “But at the same time, this sort of emergency response is so limited in scope and in vision, and instead what we really should be looking for is opportunities not to manage homelessness, but to end it.”

Constantine said he is keenly aware of concerns about how it looks to shelter people in a place that was a jail, but he said the alternative is worse.

“The optics of people taking shelter in a former minimum-security jail are, I would suggest, not as bad as the optics of hundreds of people having to sleep out in the rain and snow,” Constantine said.

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