Renton officials call for July 9 closure of downtown homeless shelter

King County shelter at Red Lion Inn has seen 79% increase in emergency calls for violence, drugs and other inappropriate behaviors, officials say.

Renton city officials are asking King County to uphold its end of the deal after recently expressing safety concerns with the behavior of residents at a downtown homeless shelter.

In early April, King County announced plans for three local hotels to become temporary shelters for homeless populations in an effort to reduce shelter concentrations and prevent the transmission of illness.

These temporary sites, deemed “de-intensification” shelters, are located in Bellevue, SeaTac and Renton, providing beds for nearly 400 people experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

On May 5, Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone addressed the King County Council about the increased stress on Renton’s emergency services. The mayor also spoke of concerns for local residents and businesses as well as the county’s lack of an exit plan for the shelter. Renton officials have also requested a firm July 9 closure date for the shelter.

“Today is also a plea for you to realize the enormity of the emergency task Renton has taken on, to thank us for doing much more than our part, and to respectfully urge that you honor a verbal commitment to make our significant sheltering job a temporary one and work with us on an exit strategy,” Pavone said.

Renton’s Red Lion Inn, located in the downtown core along 1 South Grady Way, has housed about 200 people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This population is more than triple of Renton’s homeless population under normal circumstances, Pavone said.

Renton City Council President Ruth Perez raised a question of equity, noting the significant impact to both the city of Renton and its community members.

“The impacts on Renton, where many of these shelter residents are suffering with serious mental health and drug addiction issues, are much greater than what other communities are absorbing with their facilities,” Perez said May 5.

Renton’s population consists of 54% communities of color, making it one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in King County, she said.

Recent data from King County has shown the COVID-19 virus is disproportionately affecting communities of color, including increased infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths.

The city of Renton is among the highest in the county for COVID-19 infection, with 571 positive cases and 37 deaths as of May 13.

Concern for infection is coupled with the observation that many of the Renton shelter’s residents have been asked to wear masks downtown, but do not do so when visiting nearby businesses or local neighborhoods, Perez said.

Both the mayor and Bob Harrison, chief administrative officer for Renton, expressed gratitude for the funding provided to REACH services and the leadership of the shelter — but Harrison highlighted the need for an end in sight.

“We can understand that the county may wish to keep its options open to have the social distancing and COVID-19 disease prevention aspects of a shelter beyond 90 days,” Harrison said. “But given the enormity of the impact Renton has been willing to take on, it’s simply not fair to extend that obligation to our community for more than 90 days.”

In a recently submitted memorandum of understanding, Renton officials asked the county for written commitment and requested a transportation plan to return residents to their shelter of origin once the 90 days are up. The city requested additional security measures to mitigate the influx of police, fire and aid calls to the site since the shelter’s opening.

“While we agreed to be partners and to help this county through an emergency pandemic, Renton’s part of the job shouldn’t last forever and there needs to be others stepping forward to do their part,” said Renton Police Chief Ed VanValey.

Increase in police and fire calls

In the span of a month since the shelter’s opening, the Renton Police Department has seen a 79% increase in calls from the shelter’s location, ranging from two to six calls a day and as many as nine to 12 calls in a single day, VanValey said. Officers have been asked to trespass violent residents and have responded to reports of drug use, littering and graffiti, defecation and other inappropriate behavior, he said.

“The men and women of our department have conducted themselves with professionalism and restraint, even when there’s been some name-calling and protesting of our presence,” VanValey said. “That’s all part of the job.”

In 2019, Renton Regional Fire Authority (RFA) received one call from the Red Lion Inn location. In just under a month since opening, RFA has responded to more than 30 calls at the shelter, said Fire Chief Rick Marshall.

Marshall said the significant demands on the fire authority’s time and resources since the shelter’s opening have been substantial, “to the point where it has drained our ability to serve the remainder of our RFA service area.”

Upon the shelter’s opening, fire officials found inadequate safety concerns including fencing that would hinder fire trucks from accessing the Red Lion shelter site, and locked doors in the building or furniture blocking doorways that could jeopardize the lives of residents in an emergency, he said.

“While none of the calls we’ve responded to have ended up being actual life-threatening emergencies, they require our time and attention nonetheless and they limit our ability to cover other parts of a very large service area,” Marshall said.

On May 12, King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove published a social media post focused on respect during the time of a global pandemic and the fundamental difference that separates Renton’s shelter from the others in the county.

“I expect longtime residents of Renton to treat newcomers like the guests at the Red Lion with respect,” Upthegrove wrote in the post. “I also expect the guests of the Red Lion to treat the surrounding businesses and other city residents with respect. Unfortunately this isn’t happening.”

Upthegrove said he realizes the behavior of the Red Lion guests has had a significant impact alogn with a financial cost to city government and the community members who own small businesses, work or live nearby.

“Because of our current emergency, the decision by the county to operate a shelter in Renton at the Red Lion was made without having to comply with city zoning or permits, and with no community engagement prior to the decision,” he said. “That’s the nature of emergency decisions, but that also makes this situation fundamentally different than normal processes to site facilities.”

Because of the fundamental differences between Renton’s shelter and others, Upthegrove said he will look for the following before voting to accept the report and release future funding:

• A transition plan for end of site use, which should include criteria to determine when the site will transition back and plans on how the county will consult with city officials to implement the transition.

• The inclusion of provisions to ensure the health, safety and well-being of shelter residents at the conclusion of the use of the Red Lion Inn.

• Consideration of the equity and social justice impacts of the decision to use this location when developing the transition plan and potential timelines.

Upthegrove also praised Renton’s actions and adaptability in response to the health crisis.

“The mayor, city council and many local business and community leaders have rejected the “Not in My Back Yard” mentality and instead have recognized that in this unprecedented global pandemic, Renton has a role to play — and they have strived to be a good partner with the county. And we owe it to them to demonstrate our care and our respect in return.”