Fire officials concerned over safety hazards after King Co. turns hotel into homeless shelter

Since COVID hit hard this spring, King County officials have used the Red Lion Inn in Renton as a homeless shelter in an attempt to prevent devastating outbreaks within homeless shelters in the county.

And the good news is that is working. But officials in the city of Renton say having the shelter in the hotel is causing a host of other issues that need to be resolved before something catastrophic happens.

The Renton Fire Department was back out at the hotel today responding to a man who barricaded himself in his room after setting off the fire alarm. Fire officials and law enforcement say since the hotel became a shelter, they’ve had to respond frequently. Meanwhile, shelter employees say the move to the hotel has been overwhelmingly positive for the homeless.

It was a chaotic scene last Wednesday. Renton firefighters worked quickly to extinguish a fire and evacuate the Red Lion Inn, now occupied by 200 homeless residents.

“We had five people in wheelchairs that were trapped on the fifth floor during a fire that our firefighters had to evacuate, and it creates a huge liability for us, for the safety of the folks that are living there, and it is concerning,” said Renton Fire Marshal Anjela Barton.

Barton says fortunately everyone was okay. But the fire, deemed an arson by prosecutors, was a dreaded event they saw coming.

“It wasn’t about if we were going to have a fire in there. It was about when.”

Barton says from day one of the Red  Lion Inn being transformed into a homeless shelter, there’s been regular calls for service. Barton says exit doors have been chained up and fire alarms set off regularly. She says it really all boils down to code issues that stem from a hotel being used as a shelter.

“I think the bigger concern we have now is on a long-term basis we still have a use in a building that really isn’t designed for what it's being used as it’s not code compliant for that.”

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Tonight at a meeting held by the regional homeless authority, physicians who work at the hotel say the operation has been incredibly successful on many levels.

“Incredible progress can and has been made in peoples physical health as well as their mental health because of their stability but I think even more important has been the positive impact on the clients self-esteem and self-image. They no longer necessarily view themselves as homeless,” said Dr. Russell Berg.

Another doctor acknowledged some Renton city officials' complaints.

“I know that this particular group of people is a load on this city. I understand that a load on not only firefighters but police and the Valley Medical Center,” said Dr. Nancy Connolly.

But she emphasized this: “The benefits that the residents have received moving from the congregate shelter to this hotel have been tremendous.”

She and other county officials say they want to find a way to work with the city of Renton so everyone can live comfortably together

The interim fire chief for Renton fire tells us they don’t care who stays at the hotel. They just want it to be safe for the residents, staff, and their firefighters that have to respond.

Meanwhile the city of Renton continues its ongoing legal battle with King County over the shelter at the Red Lion violating city code. If the city wins the argument, they could shut down the shelter. The topic will be discussed at a City Council meeting next week.