EVERETT — A $4.3 million state grant will pay for new initiatives expected to provide a nightly safe place to stay for about 90 homeless people across Snohomish County, chipping away at a shelter bed shortage that local officials say has swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county plans to spend about $2.4 million of the grant on a new facility in the Everett area to house 50 to 60 people at a time, clearing the way for officials to decommission an emergency shelter in the heart of downtown.
City officials have also proposed using about $735,000 of the grant, from the state Department of Commerce’s Shelter Program, to build a community of about 20 low-cost shelter units known as “pallet shelters.” The form of personal shelter, a specialty of a local manufacturer, is gaining traction nationwide as a strategy that can provide stable, short-term homes for individuals and families while they seek permanent housing.
City and county officials are working with human services organizations to explore possible locations for the pair of projects and identify agencies that might operate them. The timeline for opening them will likely depend on permitting requirements and other preparation needs of the locations selected, officials say.
“We’re wanting to move as quickly as possible and make sure that we’re developing the best possible site for the community,” said county Human Services Director Mary Jane Brell Vujovic.
Last January, the county would have needed about 520 more year-round shelter beds to house the entire local homeless population, the human services department has estimated. That’s roughly double what was available at the time.
But that gap has likely widened, as social distancing requirements have winnowed space available at shelters by roughly a third, county officials have said.
Julie Willie, Everett’s community development director, said she hopes to see the pallet shelter community up and running next spring.
The county is drafting a grant agreement that will go before the Everett City Council for approval before the project proceeds.
The city is eyeing a 64-square-foot shelter model produced by Pallet, a business headquartered on Merrill Creek Parkway. The company has had a hand in similar projects in Tacoma and other cities across the United States, generating more than 1,500 shelter beds since its founding in 2016, according to Marketing Director Brandon Bills.
The structures, made of an aluminum welded frame with insulated composite panels, can be assembled in as little as 30 minutes each, Bills said. They can be equipped with electricity and heat. Pricing starts at about $4,900 per shelter but varies depending on order size and other details, he said.
“With a pallet shelter in a community setting, someone can move off the street, they can stabilize, and they can begin to access some of the critical services they need,” Bills said. “People experiencing homelessness often don’t have that community, that network of people they can lean on.”
City officials envision a cluster of the pallet shelters with communal bathroom and shower facilities. The shelters could house couples or individuals with pets who are not allowed at traditional shelters, Willie said. The operating agency would provide sanitation and security services, she said.
The rest of the grant money will pay for six more shelter beds at the Interfaith Family Shelter in Everett and 15 motel rooms to shelter people living on the streets throughout Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood and Marysville.
The need for more shelter options has intensified as temperatures have dropped.
Everett Gospel Mission has had to turn away 10 to 15 people each night from a seasonal shelter it’s operating at the Everett United Church of Christ, according to the county human services department.
The Salvation Army, which runs an emergency shelter out of the basement of the downtown Carnegie Building, has also had to refuse up to seven people nightly since the weather cooled, Brell Vujovic said.
The historic Carnegie Building, which reopened in late 2018 as a hub for social services, has provided some 40 shelter beds this year to help make up for lost capacity. Under the county’s plan, the shelter operation there will be decommissioned once the new beds are established.
The county has also used money from the federal CARES Act to provide motel vouchers to more than 150 people, including children and other vulnerable individuals, to get them off the streets during the pandemic.
But Brell Vujovic has warned that the county has no designated federal funding to continue paying for those vouchers past Jan. 1. The County Council plans to pass a stopgap measure this month to preserve some of the 2021 general fund for motel rooms early next year.
Cold weather shelters have opened in Lynnwood and at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe, Brell Vujovic said. Some homeless people in north county are also receiving motel vouchers for nights when temperatures approach freezing.
Altogether, there are more than 100 seasonal shelter beds, she said.
North, South and East County are exploring a few more options for expanding capacity, Brell Vujovic said.
City and county authorities drew criticism this year when they dispersed large encampments that developed on the downtown Everett county campus and a vacant lot off Rucker Avenue, despite federal guidelines that have advised against breaking up such camps during the pandemic.
Officials asserted that many of the people living in the camps had refused services. But many homeless people told The Everett Daily Herald the sweeps left them with nowhere else to go, citing full shelters and a lack of other resources.
Whether the county’s homeless population has grown since the beginning of the pandemic is still a question.
A statewide eviction moratorium has so far barred landlords from kicking tenants out during the public health crisis. That moratorium is now set to expire at the end of the year, but Gov. Jay Inslee could still extend it, as he has done several times since the policy took effect in March.
The county, like other jurisdictions across the nation, relies on an annual survey to gauge the number of people living on the streets and in shelters. The count is typically done in January by volunteers. But this year, it could look different — in Snohomish County and elsewhere.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the annual Point-in-Time Count, said in a Nov. 30 bulletin that the agencies responsible for the 2021 surveys will have the option to request an exception this year that will excuse them from the part of the count that tallies individuals who are not in shelters.
Brell Vujovic said on Friday that she did not yet know if those conducting the Snohomish County count would seek the waiver.
Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.