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Justice

When a Jail Becomes a Homeless Shelter

King County, Washington’s plan stoked concerns about the link between homelessness and incarceration. Local leaders say they have a moral obligation to do what they can.
A dorm room in the West Wing of the King County Jail, which is being converted into a homeless shelter.
A dorm room in the West Wing of the King County Jail, which is being converted into a homeless shelter.King County, Washington

In recent years, King County, Washington, has been converting unused government buildings into housing for its growing homeless population. It set up a family shelter in a health center, for example, and built cottages at a warehouse. But the latest conversion is more unorthodox: Seattle will soon shelter at least 100 members of its homeless population in the West Wing of the county jail.

The plan fits into the broader efforts by the city and county to address their homelessness crisis. Today, more than three years after Seattle declared a state of emergency, over 11,600 people are experiencing homelessness there, comprising the third largest homeless population of any U.S. city. The county jail is one of at least eight unused government buildings or land sites to be used as a shelter or resource center, and while many homeless advocates and experts agree that it’s not a systemic solution, it is a bold and perhaps extremely overdue approach to handling some of the most urgent effects of this crisis.