The Union Gospel Mission works with Operation Nightwatch to fill up its spare beds at the end of the night. 
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The Union Gospel Mission works with Operation Nightwatch to fill up its spare beds at the end of the night.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Seattle shelters are so crowded some people sleep in chairs

The doors at Operation Nightwatch open at 9 p.m. Homeless men and women – but mostly men – stream in and grab a hot meal.

Then they sit around. They look anxious. They’re waiting for beds.

A man named Kevin Burke sits at a desk in the corner of the room. Burke is why people are here. Burke is the finder of beds.

“I know what it is to be homeless,” he says. “I’ve been homeless quite a few times.”

He picks up the phone.

“Hi, yeah, this is Kevin with Operation Nightwatch,” he says. “I’m just calling to see if you’ve got any spots. … Well, if you get anything, let me know.”

There’s no fancy computer system that tells him which shelters have beds. He works with pen and paper and an old telephone.

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This complicated scene repeats itself every night. It’s why some of the homeless people who live in the Jungle – a three-mile stretch beneath Interstate 5 – want nothing to do with shelters. They say the shelter system wears them down with its complicated schedules and rules of entry.

Operation Nightwatch, a Christian ministry, opens its doors after the shelters have closed theirs in hopes of finding 190 empty shelter spots across the city. The organization started this service in the 1970s; it also started what is known as the One Night Count of the homeless.

On this night, people keep walking up to the desk and asking Burke if he’s found anything for them.

“Each time you stop me from doing –” he pauses. “That’s why I’m kind of slow because people keep on asking questions.”

Frank Brown is one of the people who keeps asking. He’s a retired truck driver who had a stroke and can no longer work.

“I’m trying to find some place to go to sleep,” Brown says. “They just keep putting me off. Talking about sit down, wait, sit down, wait. Wait for what?”

Burke: “Have a seat and I’ll see what I can do. OK, thank you.”

Brown: “I’m still waiting; you ain’t called my name.”

Burke: “I know Mr. Frank – I’m trying to get everybody in here, so be patient, OK?”

Brown: “Sending all these other people to all these other different places; why don’t you have a place for me?”

Most shelters expect to be full. But on any given night, a few people don’t show up, and the shelters discover they have unclaimed mattresses.

That’s why these homeless men and women are here, waiting. They don’t want to sleep outside.

Burke: “Right now, the only thing I have is Union Gospel Mission or either Tent City 6.”

Man: “Union Gospel Mission.”

Burke: “You don’t mind a chair?”

Man: “Huh?”

Burke: “A chair.”

Man: “What do you mean a chair?”

Burke: “You sleep in a chair.”

Man: “I sleep in a chair?”

Burke: “Yeah.”

At 11:15 p.m., Frank Brown hears his name called.

“Addis Borello, Jose Lujano, Mark Brown, Frank Brown!” Burke calls out. Brown has been assigned to a bed.

“I’m truly thankful for what these people do here for me,” Brown says.

Shelters claim they have room for more people. Even if they don’t have beds, they can turn the lunch room, for example, in to a sleeping area and throw down some cots.

But here’s the paradox: Many people still find the shelter system inaccessible. They say it’s too much of a hassle. Each shelter has a slightly different version of the logistical nightmare at Operation Nightwatch.

The lines.

The waiting.

Yet people do stand in line and wait, because shelter beds are a scarce resource. Individual shelters may have some flexibility when it comes to capacity, but the numbers suggest a downward trend: The number of people sleeping outside has risen much faster than the number of shelter beds.

"I am truly grateful for what they do for me here," Frank Brown says of Operation Nightwatch. However frustrating the process may be for him, he says he comes here every night.

“Until I can find get me a one-bedroom apartment,” he says. “Because I have a voucher to get one – and I have the money to get one. I just haven’t been able to find an empty one-bedroom apartment nowhere in Seattle.”

Many people eventually get out of the shelter system and into permanent housing. But a smaller group doesn’t. And no matter what they do, they just can’t seem to escape.

They either resign themselves to organizing their lives around shelters and their schedules, or they give up on shelters entirely - and set up camp somewhere.

Cassidy Sweezey decided to move to the Jungle.

“I kind of gave up on the system a while ago, ’cause you jump through all these hoops and they ask so much of you,” she says.

Next week, we’ll hear her story, and learn what’s keeping the shelter system from meeting the needs of more people.