Renton battles King County over temporary shelter at Red Lion Hotel

County officials believe emergency health order will supersede city’s move.

In an effort to halt the Renton Red Lion Hotel’s use as a temporary shelter for homeless, the city of Renton has issued a finding of a city code violation, and states it’s giving the county until Aug. 9 to find a new location for the shelter.

City leaders have expressed concerns that the shelter is causing a strain on city resources and harming nearby businesses, as previously reported in Renton Reporter.

In a press release, Mayor Armondo Pavone states that the city “will take action to enforce our laws— just like we would do with any other land use violator.”

The Red Lion has housed more than 200 people who have experienced homelessness since April, after an emergency declaration from King County Public Health, in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people in this high-risk group. The hotel, referred to as a de-intensification shelter, houses people who were formerly at a shelter in downtown Seattle and a Queen Anne shelter, both operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC).

DESC Director Daniel Malone said no alternatives have been identified yet for moving folks from the Renton shelter. He said it’s concerning the shelter residents wouldn’t be able to stay there for much longer while the parties work out a long-term location.

The county believes the local health order supersedes this city code violation. King County Facilities Management Department Director Tony Wright said it’s unlikely the city can enforce the violation given the shelter was created under an emergency order, and that the county and shelter are following regulations in this situation. Wright said he couldn’t speak to the long range plans for the folks at the shelter, but that he’s been asked many times to help the county buy a building and knows what it looks like — and there’s been no indication for him to do so in this instance.

In an email, a King County Executive Office spokesperson stated that it was disappointing the city of Renton was taking this position as the pandemic continues and grows in some places. The county has seen considerable support from some Renton community members, and residents staying in the shelter have seen improvements in their health and welfare.

“We look forward to continue working with the city of Renton as we do all we can to make sure every resident of King County stays healthy and safe,” the statement continued.

Malone said that his organization has really appreciated this shelter, and recognizes it didn’t get advanced planning due to the COVID-19 crisis.

But the thing about the shelter is it isn’t just “Seattle’s” shelter — it is used by people across the whole region who are struggling the most. At least 87% of the people in the shelter have a disabling condition, but Malone said that number is likely higher.

“This shelter we’ve moved temporarily to the Red Lion, is the place hospitals throughout King County discharge people to, that law enforcement agencies refer people to,” Malone said. “For decades, high needs have all been funnelled to downtown Seattle. But none of the people are born and raised in downtown. This is a regional resource, and for the time being it’s taking place in Renton.”

A timeline for removal

The city emphasizes in its press release that the county hasn’t committed to a clear timeline to relocate the shelter. The city claims the lack of a timeline is unfair to local businesses, residents and even the people staying at the shelter.

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 specific timetable 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,” Mayor Pavone stated.

DESC Director Malone said it’s clear the city is worried the hotel will become a permanent arrangement. He said the hope for DESC is that it can move folks somewhere where they can have an individual space permanently, and not back to the downtown shelter space.

The order authorizing quarantine and isolation facilities is set to expire when Public Health Seattle King County Health Officer Jeffrey Duchin determines there is no longer a need.

Winter Cashman-Crane is an active member of the Renton community and started advocating for the shelter in May after seeing the city’s pushback. Cashman-Crane said it doesn’t make sense for the city to ask for a timeline on the relocation of the shelter, when the pandemic doesn’t have a timeline yet.

Cashman-Crane also pointed to an article from the Seattle Times that showed quality-of-life improvements for people staying there, and that while service calls have increased for that hotel in Renton, they are significantly less than the downtown Seattle shelter that the folks were in before.

“How is the city going to try to claim equity in any kind of way while we are talking about a vulnerable and marginalized community?” Cashman-Crane said.

Malone, with DESC, said that since the article in late May his staff continue to report that the hotel is beneficial to clients. Folks in individual suites with showers and beds are able to set their minds toward long-term housing needs without the daily stress of close-quarters shelter.

Renton City Council, meanwhile, continues to look at the issues at the Red Lion shelter. Councilmember Ed Prince, who also serves on the new Regional Homelessness Authority, said he hopes they will be able to have regional equity for the long-term solutions for homelessness. He said he’s heard from residents who both support and oppose the shelter.

“We’re in a global pandemic now, we have people who need to be housed. We need to make sure we do that in the most safe, sane and culturally appropriate way possible,” Prince said.

Extraordinary impacts

In a press release regarding the code violations, city officials say they want Renton residents and businesses to be relieved of “extraordinary impacts the shelter has brought to the city.”

The city reported high calls for first responders to the area in the month of April, and reports “no single entity or location in Renton has required anywhere near the same level of first responder resources as the unpermitted and unlicensed DESC shelter.”

Data from the city of Renton shows from April 6 to May 17, the Renton Police Department received 657 calls in what it classifies as the vicinity of the hotel, compared to 2019’s 399 calls, and 2018’s 441 calls. In the first half of May, 9% of city service calls were in the Red Lion vicinity, compared to 2019’s 4.6% and 2018’s 4.7%.

Renton battles King County over temporary shelter at Red Lion Hotel

Businesses have reported increased expenses to add security and cleanup property damage — in the thousands of dollars in some instances, Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Dobson said as she thanked Mayor Pavone and the Renton City Council at the July 7 council meeting for their support of businesses surrounding the Red Lion. Dobson said she did not share the issues businesses face in an effort to minimize the importance of the facility or positive improvements guests are experiencing there.

DESC Director Malone said operators of the shelter are following up on situations where guests were exhibiting behaviors in the community, and said that incidents of concern have appeared to decrease. He said that some calls surrounding the hotel have ended up not being related to the guests.

In a report for the extension of the Red Lion lease in May, the county stated that it has also supported Renton while this shelter has been in place by providing up to $47,000 to Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches (REACH) and working to reduce unnecessary calls to Renton’s emergency response system.

The county, in an email, listed the following additional steps that have been taken to relieve issues around the Red Lion:

• Removed phones in hotel rooms, which has resulted in a reduction of service calls

• Fire code improvements

• Outreach to businesses in the vicinity of the site

• Weekly community outreach calls that include representatives from Renton

• Regular communications between city leadership and representatives from Executive Office, Department of Community and Human Services and Facilities Management Division.

Resident Cashman-Crane also spoke at the July 7 city council meeting, saying they were tired of crime as a narrative constantly linked to those staying at the shelter.

“In my neighborhood this weekend, there were more crimes than I could count with my neighbors lighting off fireworks. And when I lived behind Cheers, the bar downtown, the police were there nightly,” Cashman-Crane said. “But when Red Lion attempts to help homelessness, the city works to remove them? I know it’s not apples to apples, but it is an example that speaks to an absolute ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”

Targeting Renton

Several in the city have argued that Renton is taking more than its fair share of shelter residents.

Red Lion is the largest shelter from the health order, while the city is less than 5% of King County’s total population at 4.6%. Some are also concerned that the push of the shelter to Renton was inequitable.

In a report justifying the extension of the Red Lion lease, the county states it evaluated the specific location of the Red Lion through an Equity Impact Awareness tool that looks for possible long-term hardships to vulnerable communities based on the amount of resources the area has to recover. The city of Renton scored for having a low chance of prolonged impact.

Others in Renton are advocating for support of the shelter and the people living there, including the 11th Legislative District Democrats who passed a resolution supporting the shelter at the Red Lion. Vice Chairman David Fleetwood has actively opposed city leadership’s position on the shelter.

Fleetwood argues that if the city were taking its fair share of supporting the homeless population, 5% of all the people who are homeless in King County is more than the Red Lion shelter’s 200. The latest Point-In-Time count released last week found a rough estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness, both sheltered and unsheltered. At 4.6%, that’s about 540 people.

Both Fleetwood and Cashman-Crane were also concerned with equity in the relocation of the hotel, citing the demographics of the shelter.

“You can’t claim equity while throwing out people of color,” Fleetwood said.

DESC reports that 49% of residents are people of color, and a third of residents are Black. Renton is a diverse city that has been praised in the past for its inclusion work, and 54% of Renton residents are people of color. When looking at the shelter’s demographics, Cashman-Crane said the city’s argument of equity for the shelter to be relocated from Renton seems tone-deaf.

Not in my backyard

The city in its pres release states that having shelter residents in this location without long-term housing puts them at risk. A summary of the Mayor’s Weekly Newsletter appeared to refer to the city asking for the removal of the shelter as “working to help the homeless.” Mayor Pavone and Council President Ruth Pérez recently shared an op-ed stating that Renton has done its part and it is time for King County to do theirs.

“Renton supports compassionate, innovative, and inclusive measures to address issues of homelessness and we have a representative 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,” Pérez stated in a press release.

The city has stated multiple times that it serves people in need and has avoided a “not in my backyard” attitude on regional issues, citing the Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches (REACH) work for homeless families that receives city support, and according to a statement, aggressively pursuing more temporary housing and feeding programs in city limits.

Last week, REACH Board of Directors wrote a letter in support of the city and of relocation of the Red Lion shelter. The city started a reoccurring resource fair in fall 2019 to serve homeless residents, but it has been facing cancellations during the coronavirus shutdown. The city supports partners like REACH that run the two shelters in Renton and feeding programs, but does run one itself.

Supporters of the shelter say they do not see Renton doing its part. Cashman-Crane said when they see the successes of the marginalized people living inside the shelter, paired with the current health crisis and a need to lower cases of COVID-19 in King County, they cannot see how the city claims equity on this issue.

“The reality is, what they are literally doing, is saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Cashman-Crane said.

The opinion piece by Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone and Council President Ruth Pérez is available here.