By Armondo Pavone and Ruth Pérez, Special to the Renton Reporter
The health threat of COVID-19 for those experiencing homelessness prompted the Seattle-based Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) to open a “de-intensification” shelter at the Renton Red Lion Inn in April – and the City of Renton has done its part to support this shelter, the local community, and those experiencing homelessness during this difficult time.
But while Renton does its part, King County and DESC need to do theirs, too. King County must respect City of Renton zoning codes and despite months of trying to find a path forward, Renton will take action to enforce our laws – just like we would do with any other land use violator.
It’s time for King County and DESC to work cooperatively with us on a defined timetable for this shelter, so that residents can get the long-term service they need, so that county taxpayers don’t incur the high costs of an expensive and temporary solution, and so that Renton citizens and businesses can be relieved of extraordinary impacts the shelter has brought to our city.
Renton supports compassionate, innovative, and inclusive measures to address issues of homelessness– a key reason we have an elected official on the Governing Board of the new regional homelessness authority. Renton is actively working with other governments, service providers, non-profits, and faith communities to implement cooperative regional solutions to both homelessness and the COVID-19 emergency that continues to threaten lives and our economy. It’s what makes us a wonderful city.
The DESC shelter residents have extraordinary needs including mental health, medical assistance, substance abuse counseling and other daily services. It’s a King County and DESC responsibility to provide those on-site services but the impacts on Renton first responder resources, nearby businesses, and the South Renton neighborhood is overwhelming. No single entity or location in Renton has required anywhere near the same level of first responder resources than the unpermitted and unlicensed DESC shelter brought to Renton in April 2020. It is also the largest shelter of its kind in our area and now located in a city with less than five percent of the total population of King County.
King County established the Renton Red Lion shelter without regard for city zoning, licensing, and permitting requirements and without first coordinating its placement with Renton. The City has asked King County for clear guidelines for the shelter’s temporary operation, but the county has been unwilling to commit to any timetable or to relocate the shelter. We want King County and DESC to focus resources and relocate the shelter to a new location (or split into multiple locations) where it can be lawfully located and commit to a timeline to make the more permanent move.
In making this request, Renton has remained a community that serves people in need and has avoided a “not in my backyard” attitude toward solving regional issues. We are one of the most diverse cities in King County, with communities of color comprising 54 percent of our population. We actively partner with REACH (Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches) to manage the Center of Hope Shelter and we are aggressively pursuing more locations for temporary housing, shelter, and feeding programs within the city limits. Our first responders and community resources are stretched beyond their limits, and we don’t have the resources and infrastructure to respond continually to and around one shelter that occupies a fraction of our city and houses more than double the number of people (225) as any other emergency shelter established by King County.
DESC does not want to return to its previous downtown Seattle location, but there is no transition plan to find more permanent housing for the DESC shelter residents. That is unfair to the shelter residents who need safe and secure housing with intervention services for the long-term. Locating these residents in violation of local zoning without a concrete plan for long term housing puts them at risk. It is just as unfair to neighborhoods and businesses around the shelter that would like to work with the City on economic revitalization and recovery from the economic impacts of COVID-19, but have instead had to spend tens of thousands of dollars in the midst of a pandemic on security, building repairs, litter and drug-needle cleanup, and more.
Renton is doing its part during this time of crisis. Now, King County and DESC need to prioritize plans for a more permanent safe and sustainable location of the shelter residents. The shelter residents deserve compassion and a plan beyond this emergency location. Renton first responders, businesses, and residents deserve a reprieve from the unsustainable and disproportional impacts created by the unpermitted shelter.
Armondo Pavone is the Mayor and Ruth Pérez is the City Council President of Renton.