By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Five years ago this month, Cottage Grove Commons opened at 5444 Delridge Way SW.
In December 2013, homelessness was not as ubiquitous or contentious a topic in Seattle. But the 66-unit “supportive housing” building that has changed ~100 people from homeless to housed rose from a bed of controversy anyway.
The building’s owner/operator, DESC (the acronymic name comes from its start as the Downtown Emergency Service Center), didn’t throw a five-year anniversary party nor send out an announcement. We noticed the five-year mark while looking through WSB archives for something unrelated. So we requested an interview with the organization’s executive director, Daniel Malone. We sat down with him and CGC project manager Colin Maloney recently.
First – the backstory.
A June 2011 meeting of the North Delridge Neighborhood Council brought first public word that DESC was considering a Delridge project. We followed up, reporting days later that DESC already was in the process of buying the site. A “passionate” community meeting followed.
So did other discussions, as did funding ($500,000 state, $4.5 million city, part of the total cost cited on the SMR Architects project page as $8.5 million), in the ensuing months.
In the five years since Cottage Grove Commons opened, this region has seen an “explosion of the number of people experiencing homelessness,” as Malone termed it. This is “permanent supportive housing” – not meant to be transitional, or a gateway to someplace else, though sometimes a tenant will move on, often to “reunite with family.” Some tenants are on a list for subsidized senior housing but getting it “takes years.” Affording anything else is largely out of the question, since residents’ income is usually from disability payments of around $700 a month.
“This model … is the most-successful evidence-based approach to serving homeless people with the most severe problems,” and much more of it is needed, Malone says – about 4,500 units more. “Thousands of people are waiting for something like this.”
“And that doesn’t count the people who are at risk” but not yet homeless, adds Maloney.
Any vacancies at Cottage Grove Commons are brief; at the time of our interview, an apartment was being readied for someone who would move in in time to have a home for Christmas. When there is a vacancy, the county-managed Coordinated Entry for All process is the source of referrals. It determines each person’s “level of need” for supportive housing, as well as sorting for other factors.
Since the first two tenants moved into CGC on December 18, 2013, turnover’s been 10 to 15 percent a year, DESC says.
“Mostly health-related,” Malone said. To be more blunt: They die, or need end-of-life care. The “aging of the chronically homeless population (is) an increasing issue in homelessness and supportive housing work.”
So much so, that it would be ideal if they had on-site health care. Not just because of aging: “One thing I’d add is that homelessness ages people prematurely,” observed Maloney. One 30something resident is on dialysis. Another in their 50s died of organ failure. “The average age of our tenants is early to mid-50s … average mortality in chronic homelessness is early 60s.”
Getting care for the building’s residents is a challenge, in part because, as Maloney described it, they “have great reluctance to go to hospitals and doctors. Often times they’ve been treated very poorly,” especially when it comes to pain management: “(Doctors) don’t want to prescribe (it) because they’re worried about abuse, so our tenants get undertreated or treated with suspicion.”
Many are already coping with serious mental illness, too, and DESC provides that care. Maloney notes that they have two case managers; Malone says that is the most significant staffing change from what they planned – “we had a critical mass of people living here who could enroll in that service.”
But no, Cottage Grove Commons is not a mental-health institution or drug-treatment center, as some people mistakenly believe, Maloney says. Sometimes they have to explain that firsthand “If neighbors have a concern, staffers are instructed to record it. I reach out to them personally by e-mail or phone. We have had a lot of success in people coming in to better understand what this place is … They come in, I show them the apartments, they soften.”
They promised a community advisory council even before opening CGC, and it’s convened now and then; since our pre-Christmas interview, Maloney announced a meeting for January (more on that at the end of this story).
Though CGC and similar facilities are not “institutions,” the people who live there are people who, decades ago, “would likely have been in an institutional setting,” Malone observes. Institutionalization has been de-emphasized for decades, with what he sees as a “good intent …to have people live in the community,” but without enough support systems to make it work.
Along with a need for mental-health services, Maloney says, many of the people they help have a need for “trauma-informed care,” which takes into account the “difficulties (they) experienced,” including “great hardship.”
Malone says DESC has “stayed close to (its) mission (of working with) the longterm homeless,” though it could expand beyond that, with its mental-health work having grown: “We could open up clinics all over th place, but we’re not interested in doing that” – just in providing “service for this most-specific group of people.”
As mentioned above, the disability payments for their residents don’t go far. Ongoing public funding is involved too – including federal “Continuum of Care” funding, city and county contracts, sales-tax dollars earmarked for behavioral-health care, document-recording-fee funding, and the county Veterans/Seniors/Human Services levy. (Some past announcements are here and here.) DESC does private fundraising as well, Malone continues, while saying that’s “not a large percentage” of their funding.
“While our units are subsidized, we end up saving a lot of money for the public,” Maloney adds. “I love connecting with people to help them better understand.”
Sometimes the greater “understanding” involves seeing residents “reintegrate into the life of the community or feel for the first time in their lives that they’re part of the larger community.”
Neighbors volunteering, and community organizations’ assistance, helps with that. “It’s really in everyone’s interest to have a society where people are less marginalized.”
Maloney has a final word on that: “It’s not just ‘other people’ at risk of homelessness. It’s everyone.I have tenants here who owned their own businesses. I have people with advanced degrees.” And someone who lost their home because of family circumstances. The reasons are many; the bottom line remains “it’s not just ‘other people’,” Maloney repeats.
COMMUNITY MEETING: All are welcome at the mentioned-earlier community advisory committee meeting, 6:30 pm Tuesday, January 8th, at Cottage Grove Commons.
SIDE NOTES: In response to community request, DESC committed ground-floor commercial space in the building to what is now the Delridge Grocery Cooperative, and promised money to help cover build-out costs. The space remains vacant after 5 years, but the co-op says it’s still working toward opening a store … Some of the concerns voiced before CGC was built was that it would depress property values in the area; North Delridge redevelopment has continued at a relatively speedy pace, including right next to CGC, where a townhouse/live-work project called Delridge 7 is being built. The Super 24 minimart across the way, meantime, was listed for sale earlier this year as a potential redevelopment site, asking price almost $2 million.
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