October 20, 2022

Evans Scholars Evaluate King County Emergency Shelter Program

The COVID-19 pandemic presented numerous challenges to housing and homeless service providers. Congregate emergency shelters–one of the most common homeless interventions–became high-risk locations for transmission of COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, King County, Washington shifted more than 700 people from congregate shelters into hotels to reduce the risk of transmission.  

The College of Built Environments and Evans School adjunct faculty Gregg Colburn, Evans faculty Rachel Fyall, and a team of collaborators evaluated the impact of this King County pilot program in real-time. Results from this mixed methods evaluation were published in the highly regarded journal Housing Policy Debate.  “Hotels as Noncongregate Emergency Shelters: An Analysis of Investments in Hotels as Emergency Shelter in King County, Washington During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” drew on housing service data, state COVID disease reporting, and emergency dispatch calls, as well as interviews with program clients and staff.  

The study found that those who moved to hotels had much lower exposure to positive COVID cases compared to those who remained in congregate settings. Moreover, program clients reported that group hotels offered a more stability and opportunities to engage staff. Consistent with expectations of the housing literature, the presence of designated personal spaces, greater personal security, and predictable delivery of meals were found to enhance the well-being of residents. Group hotels provided safe and stable environments, but did not offer permanent or long-term housing solutions. Lessons from this novel intervention, however, demonstrate the types of changes and improvements that can be made to emergency homelessness responses in order to better serve those experiencing housing precarity.