Seattle Council Floats Using Seattle Public Library as Emergency Homeless Shelter

The Seattle City Council has expressed interest in using the Seattle Public Library as an emergency shelter for the homeless.

This idea was proposed on Wednesday when newly appointed Seattle Chief Librarian Tom Fay provided an overview of operations to the council. Councilor Lisa Herbold led a survey in Fay to determine the library’s position on the use of its space for emergency shelter capacity.

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“Does your plan consider the possibility of opening as a shelter – not using your staff, but using staff who can serve people staying in a shelter?” Herbold asked.

Herbold said the process would be structured the same way Seattle City Hall was used during the pandemic as a group shelter when the building was not otherwise in use. The Salvation Army staffed City Hall in 2020 with 70–80 accommodation beds on the lower levels of the building.

The council member further explained that the shelter would only open when the libraries do not have enough staff for traditional use, such as during a winter storm. In this case, she speculated that it might be possible for nonprofit staff to run the building as a collective shelter.

“The answer to that particular question is ‘no’ in the sense that if we’re going to open a building, the public expects library services to be offered from that building,” Fay replied. “It’s something that our staff are qualified and able to do, and that’s why we generally won’t consider it in our operations. Trying to maintain comprehensive services obviously requires qualified librarians to maintain the operations of the building. “

“I would say a lot of our buildings wouldn’t lend themselves to this simply because of their size,” Fay continued. “Most of them are quite small and don’t have any open spaces that could really accommodate that. I know the shelter at City Hall is quite large and wide open. It’s not something we considered at this point.

Fay added that libraries appearing to be open but also being used as shelter space could become a point of confusion for the public.

“It would be more problematic for us because they would have expectations of library services that couldn’t be delivered,” Fay said.

“At the start of the pandemic, Seattle Public Libraries saw an urgent need for people who depended on public restrooms, many of which were closed,” council member Herbold wrote to MyNorthwest.

“They responded by partially opening up five buildings, so people could use the restrooms, even though library services were unavailable. Libraries are owned by the City. We need them to bring a flexible spirit to the table during extreme weather emergencies. Staffing constraints caused some libraries to close during our last storm. When these closures occur during life-threatening events, why can’t some libraries operate as day warming centers, staffed by non-librarian staff? »

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