Hundreds of people sought out shelter during the recent winter storms. Local officials are seizing the moment to connect them with housing and other resources, some for the first time.
As he puts it, Jacob McAdams has been on the range for a long time.
He’s been homeless the last decade, since after his wife died of cancer. He’s lived outside mostly, except during the winter cold, when he comes inside for shelter.
In all that time, McAdams, 72, had never accessed any other homeless services.
That is, until Friday, when he attended a homeless resource fair inside the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Housing providers, employment specialists, medical caregivers and other groups set up shop at tables positioned around the edges of the hall, all of the organizations intent on helping people like McAdams. It was a new experience for him.
“I’ve never seen anything like this here,” he said.
McAdams didn’t have to seek out the resource fair. It came to him.
He’d spent the last week and a half sleeping on the Exhibition Hall floor, some of the extra shelter space the city opened two weeks ago in response to a historic series of winter storms that dumped 20 inches of snow in the Seattle area. At least one person died in Seattle, presumed to be homeless, from hypothermia.
The snowstorm was unprecedented. So was the opportunity it offered city and county officials: immediate connection to hundreds of homeless people who may never before have had contact with homeless services here.
“I don’t think the city has ever had that many snowstorms in a row, and when that much snow drops on tents, a lot of people want to go inside,” said Will Lemke, spokesman for the city’s Human Services Department, adding that more than 250 sought out resources at the fair Friday. “We recognized we had a golden opportunity to connect with people that haven’t been on our radar and be able to get services to them they haven’t been accessing.”
The three-day resource fair, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., runs through Sunday in the Exhibition Hall.
In all, the city and county set up more than 550 additional shelter spaces across the region, sometimes adding spots in sites already functioning as shelters, and sometimes making new ones out of whole cloth, setting up bed space in community centers. The city is providing transportation from those other facilities to the Exhibition Hall for the weekend resource fair.
The Navigation Team, comprising outreach workers and police officers, went to encampments every day and worked late into the night and early morning to find people who might want to come inside.
The combination of the weather and the work at night seemed to do the trick, said Jackie St. Louis, former Navigation Team leader and now the director of unsheltered crisis response for the Human Services Department. In typical weather conditions, it can take up to six interactions with the team before people agree to shelter, St. Louis has said.
During the winter storm, the team transferred 162 people directly to shelters during the storm, Lemke said. “People were literally coming up to us in the encampments, asking us where” to go, he said.
“It’s been challenging but I think it’s also reinforcing the knowledge that people do want to get inside, and people do want to get the support they need to move forward in their lives,” St. Louis said. “We’ve seen an amazing and remarkable response, way beyond anything we expected.”
Still, keeping people in shelter, in general, can be difficult. Some facilities still don’t allow couples to stay together, don’t allow pets or impose curfews.
Megan Greene, 28, and her fiancé, Rob Hock, 45, started staying in the Exhibition Hall shelter as soon as it opened but didn’t like having to sleep apart; the space is divided by gender.
But this is much warmer than the car they normally live in. And it’s nice to have a clean space to stay and resources. They went to various tables Friday, working on getting housing and medical care.
“A lot more resources than any other place we’ve been to,” Hock said.
Once the shelter closes, however, they’ll be back in their car, unless some kind of housing works out.
McAdams also didn’t love staying in the Exhibition Hall, having to wake up every morning and make the short walk to the Seattle Center Armory, which the city set up as a day center during the storm. He’s an independent type. “I like to live as I see fit,” said McAdams, who sports long white hair, a long white beard, and a warm, deep laugh. He keeps all his things neatly organized in a grocery cart: a blanket and yoga mat for sleeping, his clothes and “literature,” mostly Westerns and science fiction.
But he admits he’s lived outside longer than he would have cared to do. It can get to be “a never-ending struggle to survive,” he said.
City officials hope that people who’ve taken refuge during the storms will know they don’t have to return to the streets, Lemke said. And if they choose to, the city wants them to “at least be connected to some sort of services or some sort of resources so when they exit back into whatever situation, they are better off than they were before the storms,” he said.
As the afternoon wore on, McAdams accepted more and more help. An employee with Full Life Care, working at the resource fair, walked him to a couple of tables. He worked on getting an ORCA card. He had an appointment Saturday to work on getting a benefits card. He’d gotten his feet washed and was going to see a nurse after that.
“I appreciate it,” McAdams said. “My god, I’m here anyway. I might as well get some benefit while I’m here.”