**This article was also cross-posted to the Homelessness Response Blog
In addition to the incredible challenges our City has faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our region has seen an increase in extreme weather events over the past year due to climate change, such as record-breaking snow fall in February, all-time record-breaking heat last month, and the severe drought we are currently experiencing across our state.
The rising temperatures and dry conditions this spring and summer have contributed to a significant threat of wildfires along the West Coast and an earlier wildfire season than typical. These conditions also make Seattle more susceptible to the harsh impacts of wildfire smoke on the air we breathe.
In preparation for a potential poor air quality event this wildfire season, the Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) is engaged in planning, in partnership with Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and Public Health—Seattle & King County (PHSKC), to support those living unsheltered by opening up cleaner air shelters if the need arises.
HSD’s response to wildfire smoke falls under our “Inclement Weather” planning, which encompasses response work to support vulnerable communities during severe weather/climate events, including snow, cold temperatures, excessive heat, and poor air quality such as impacts from wildfire smoke.
In case of a poor air quality event, HSD has identified temporary shelter locations, such as Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, and other locations outside the downtown core, which have the air filtration systems necessary to comply with both smoke and COVID-19 public health protocols, which narrows the number of appropriate facilities to utilize as cleaner-air shelters.
The City contracts with The Salvation Army to operate inclement weather shelters, including cleaner air shelters, although provider capacity remains a challenge throughout our shelter system and can impact the number of sites and emergency shelter capacity.
HSD’s HOPE Team is also capable of being activated in response to a poor air quality event, as well as other severe weather—including winter storms and excessive heat. This outreach may include performing wellness checks, handing out water and other basic needs supplies, sharing information on temporary shelter/day center locations, and providing transportation to shelters. This outreach is done in coordination with City-contracted outreach providers, Health One, and other City Department partners.
Last September, during the dual crisis of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke, HSD (in partnership with PHSKC and The Salvation Army) opened a 24-hour smoke relief shelter for five consecutive days in SoDo with capacity for 100 individuals. Highlighting the challenges of opening emergency shelters during COVID-19, there was a COVID-19 exposure at this shelter despite Public Health COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
Efforts last year to open additional cleaner air spaces were restricted due to provider capacity, the need for additional COVID-19 safety protocols, and potential cleaner air shelter spaces being utilized as COVID-19 de-intensification shelters.
With recent investments in enhanced shelter, such as the new Kings Inn and Executive Hotel Pacific hotel-based shelters, the City currently funds over 2,400 shelter spaces—almost 400 more spaces compared to Q4 2020—with 91% of those spaces being enhanced shelter or tiny houses, which provide 24/7 access and wraparound onsite services. This compares to 77% in Q4 2020.