By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Downtown Emergency Service Center‘s proposal for a 75-unit Delridge building to house mentally ill homeless people is still in an early stage, though three months have elapsed since it first came to light.
It’s not a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Far from it. Delridge neighborhood advocates are planning a town-hall-style meeting for next month, with more discussion of and information about the 5444 Delridge Way project, and this past weekend, a small group toured DESC’s two newest buildings to try to get more of a feeling for what might be headed their way.
They have Department of Neighborhoods assistance in trying to bring the community more information about the proposed project, as part of a small matching-funds grant, and so district coordinators Yun Pitre and Steve Louie were along for the tour, in a city van that set out for a three-hour tour that turned into four on Saturday.
Stop 1: Rainier House in Columbia City (5270 Rainier Avenue South).
Like most of DESC’s buildings, this one has studio apartments, each assigned to one resident. 50 people live here. Each unit – we were shown one that’s currently vacant – has a kitchenette and bathroom. The lobby has a front-desk area with a staff area behind a window; while key-card access is required for coming and going, there is no further check-in/sign-in for residents. Visitors, yes (and they have to show and leave ID); residents, no. DESC says that by the time this project was built – their 7th – they had developed a “template,” so its basic characteristics are similar to what will be found in their subsequent projects.
Much of the time here was spent in an extensive Q/A session with DESC’s executive director Bill Hobson, director of administrative services Nicole Macri, and director of housing Daniel Malone, talking about Rainier House’s origins, and potential comparisons with the Delridge proposal.
According to Hobson, Rainier House’s site was previously “a vacant lot” alongside a ravine, with soil issues because of extensive presence of fill from a long-ago regrade of busy Rainier Avenue, on which it fronts. The building has underground parking, which is not in the plan for Delridge, but was required for Rainier House by city code at the time it was built. DESC says most of its residents not only don’t have cars, they never learned to drive. Most of their residents, Hobson said, have disorders with late-adolescence/early-adulthood onset: “Sixty percent of (them) experience their first psychotic episode between ages 17 and 22.” (The average age of residents in all the agency’s buidings, he said, is late 40s, though the average age in Rainier House is early 50s.)
For the Delridge project (its official online city files are here), they expect to meet city parking requirements via surface-level parking “off the alley” behind the building, which they also expect to have to improve (at least near their building, not necessarily its entire long-block stretch).
At the first tumultuous meeting with concerned Delridge residents, Hobson said they would consider including a commercial space on the ground floor of the building, and that now seems to be a concrete part of the plan. He mentioned 2,500 feet, which is more than double the commercial space in Rainier House, fronting Rainier.
“We weren’t required to put commercial space here,” Hobson noted, saying “neighborhood stakeholders” wanted it, and it “made sense to me.” Now, the Rainier Chamber of Commerce is headquartered there. The building also has a 40-person meeting room that DESC offers to “any community group that wants to use it,” Hobson says, explaining that the area had a shortage of that sort of space. Delridge, he said, won’t have a comparable space, as it does not appear to be short on meeting rooms.
The community collaboration also extends to groups lending a helping hand to Rainier House residents. During the visit, lunchtime was announced, for those who wanted to come eat in the cafeteria; volunteers from nearby Damascus Baptist Church prepared and served it, as they do on the second Saturday of each month. (Hobson had told the tour participants that the church had originally been opposed to the DESC project, though one volunteer questioned about that by a Delridge visitor said she didn’t know anything about it.)
Pressed for more information about who lives in their projects, the DESC executives said there is a higher percentage of women than in the general homeless population – while 15 percent of homeless people are female, the DESC-resident percentage is closer to 35 percent. That, Malone explained, is because “occupancy is predicated on vulnerability, and women tend to score higher.”
Regarding turnover, and why residents leave: 35 of the 50 current Rainier House residents have been there since it opened two and a half years ago. Agency-wide, Malone said, some who leave go to even-more-independent housing situations; some go to “higher levels of care, like nursing homes,” either because of advanced aging or “pretty severe problems/behaviors”; and some “return to homelessness.” They might not be “comfortable in the environment we have in the building,” Malone explained, or they might go back to the streets after “a problem event” – perhaps a clash with a neighbor that led DESC to ask them to move out. Formal evictions, according to DESC, are rare.
But the overall goal, Hobson made clear, is for residents to be there for the long term. “We actually kind of like that … Our message is, this is your home as long as you want it.”
So who pays for it? DESC says a resident pays one-third of her/his income for rent; when they come into the system, social workers help them get signed up for Social Security and Medicaid, since most are eligible because of disability (most of the Delridge residents, for example, will be people living with “major mental disorders”). The typical benefit, it was explained, is less than $700 a month, so they pay about $200 in rent. Government subsidies – Section 8 in some cases – covers the rest.
And yes, some spend money on alcohol, it was acknowledged. Drinking is not prohibited in DESC facilities (the agency even has one facility specifically for alcoholics, 1811 Eastlake). And some residents use street drugs, though they are not officially allowed. “I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist,” Malone acknowledged. “It’s a problem that many of the folks we serve have … so we take an eyes-open approach.” There are no inspections or searches. Crack and marijuana are the most commonly used illegal drugs – the former “is king among homeless people,” according to Malone.
Cigarette smoking is allowed in apartments, though Malone says health authorities are putting on “a lot of pressure” to get that changed. Hobson noted that a much-higher percentage of the homeless population smokes than the general population, and says DESC worries that going “smoke-free” would constitute a “barrier” for people to be helped by the program.
The substance-abuse discussion took a more point-blank turn at that juncture. What happens if a resident emerges from an elevator “stumbling drunk” and headed for the street? Hobson was asked.
Staffers are not empowered to outright stop someone from leaving in that condition, came to the reply, but they certainly would try to step in, maybe saying, “Hey, Joe, you’re not looking so good, why don’t you sit here with me for a while?”
If the resident heads out anyway, they might be followed by a staff member who would try again to intervene. Their leases do have some clauses about asking residents not to loiter and not to engage in drug/alcohol behaviors in the neighborhood. (Here’s the “Good Neighbor Policy” for Rainier House residents.)
(During our tour, we didn’t see any loitering outside the buildings we visited, which included a third impromptu stop outside the Kerner-Scott House, which is barely a block north of the second stop, the Canaday House. Then again, it was sunny and fairly hot, not too comfortable for just hanging around. The patio at Rainier House and the courtyard at Canaday both had people hanging out and socializing.)
The visitation policy is where the hammer really comes down, it was explained, since, DESC says, it’s the visitors who cause the “majority of unpleasant events,” not the residents. When someone visits, they have to contact staff, which in turn contacts the resident, who then comes to let the person in. The visitor – limited to two at a time per resident (and up to three overnight visitors per week) – has to turn over ID. “It’s fairly restrictive,” Malone said, while adding that they want to encourage residents to socialize, and many have “no visitors, ever.”
Visitors who cause trouble go on a “bar” list (we saw this on a whiteboard inside the staff area next to the Canaday House lobby).
Besides the staffers at the front desk, each facility has clinical support staffers who develop “residential service plans” for those assigned to them – a caseload of about 20 per staffer, DESC says. It deals not only with specific services and needs, but “identifies the problems and challenges the person has, their strengths and ambitions, divided into certain life domains.”
The services provided through the building go beyond the apartment itself. When they move in, we learn, bedding is provided, as is flatware. There are vans available to take residents to stores (none are close by). As was the case with the visiting church volunteers, some meals are served, and that’s included in the rent, for residents interested in participating – some are brought in by organizations such as FareStart (Hobson thinks DESC is its biggest client).
In all, Hobson says DESC has “more than 80 collaborative relationships with other human-service organizations” – and “perhaps our most profound relationship” is with the Seattle Police Department.
“Do you go into neighborhoods and look to learn what’s already there” in terms of potential collaborators? asked tour participant Mat McBride, chair of the Delridge Neighborhoods District Council.
Answer: Yes. An example was offered – neighborhood fly-fishing aficionados teaching residents in one DESC facility downtown.
But the caveat was also offered that DESC can’t be expected to come in and address neighborhood needs: “We are not an economic development organization,” Hobson stressed. “But at the absolute minimum, we don’t want to be a brake on economic development.”
Toward that end, he reiterates, multiple times, that while they currently are envisioning a commercial space of about 2,500 feet in the Delridge building, there is one huge concern: They do not want it to be vacant. They want to “hear the neighborhood consensus about what should go in there; we would be able to offer it at a very modest rental price.”
And they stress that the Delridge plan has gone no further than what was shown at the over-capacity community meeting in June – “a massing that conforms to the zoning for the lot. … Right now, our development proposal is pretty soft, because we still have applications out (for funding).” They hope to hear in late October/early November whether they’ll get the grant(s) for which they have applied.
Stop #2: Canaday House (424 Minor Avenue)
This building is in the ever-densifying Cascade neighborhood, adjacent to a complex for seniors, across the alley from an upscale 200-or-so-apartment development. To put it flatly, nothing about it says “the (formerly) homeless people live here.” The building has 83 units; according to the DESC website, more than a fourth are set aside for veterans. It’s taller (by two stories) than the proposed Delridge development.
Its lobby includes huge open areas, one cozy corner with computers for residents to use – this service is in a separate room off the Rainier House lobby – and a giant café space, with a TV lounge in turn accessible from one side. DESC staff says one lesson they learned is that they don’t need this much space in the café.
No Q/A session here, since the one at Rainier House lasted so long, but questions are fielded along the way. We visit a vacant unit; its features are similar to Rainier House, with a couple of added safeguards – overflow drains in the kitchen sink and on the bathroom floor. Both Canaday and Rainier have a standard-issue feature protecting against possible kitchen fires – a timer that activates power to the stove and other kitchen appliances.
The unit here, too, like Rainier House, has big windows, letting in plenty of ambient light. Each floor, it is pointed out, has a coin laundry room (Hobson says a good deal with a vendor enables them to charge only 50 cents for a wash and 50 cents for drying). Chutes on each floor take trash down to a central collection spot. Garage parking here – again, more for staff/visitors than for residents – is accessible off the alley, though a grade change means that’s off the second floor here, not the ground floor.
While we’re visiting the vacant unit, loud barking is heard in the hallway, and somebody shouting, apparently related to the barking. DESC staffers say only service animals are allowed.
A garden courtyard off the main entrance is one of the more striking features here; there is also an outside garden at Kerner-Scott House, a quick walk down the block. A bulletin board in a corner of the café announces a new walking group led by an in-house nurse, and a poker night; it also warns that Quiet Hours are 10 pm-7 am. Two of us also notice a bowl of condoms on the front desk.
Elsewhere in the lobby, there’s art on the wall; a tour participant asks about the possibility of art in or around the Delridge facility, and that is noted by DESC as a potential community interest.
After almost four hours, the tour concludes when the Delridge delegation runs out of questions, for now (as we did too); this is just one part of their fact-finding process as they prepare for the aforementioned “town hall” meeting (no date set yet, but it’s expected to be in October). Those who were on the tour also indicated that they’ll be writing up their own reports on the tour, and hoping to make the information available during the Delridge Day festival this Saturday (11 am-3 pm, Delridge Community Center, along with grand-opening festivities for the adjacent skatepark).
ADDED 9:09 PM: We finished this story just before heading off to cover tonight’s North Delridge Neighborhood Council meeting, where a brief discussion of the tour was part of the agenda. Patrick Baer, who is spearheading the plan for the October “town hall” and two subsequent meetings, organized a committee to put those meetings together, with the help of a $1,000 city grant to cover rentals at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center as well as outreach and translation for the meeting and pre-publicity. They will be moderated/facilitated meetings, he said, to keep a “respectful” tone, unlike the at-times-testy forum at Delridge Library back in June.
He says the date for the first meeting will be set before Delridge Day on Saturday, where ample information will be available from NDNC (and DESC will have a booth too, with agency reps ready to answer questions).