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Lake City's flex-shelters could change the way we see the homeless

With old Firehouse 39 in Lake City shuttered to the homeless this winter, nearby churches came together to provide a rotating shelter in its place. Could small-scale, ecumenical response transform the face of homelessness?
Volunteers at the Our Lady of the Lake Parish temporary homeless shelter.

Volunteers at the Our Lady of the Lake Parish temporary homeless shelter. Photo: Andrew Carr


As far as catalysts go, it’s an underwhelming sight: windows boarded up; barbed wire enclosing land across the way; walls and tower resembling a cast-off shell adjacent to the shiny new 11,000-square-foot firehouse that replaced it, forgotten except for the land it’s tied to.

Still, when the city converted Lake City's Old Fire Station 39 into an emergency homeless shelter over the past two winters, the influx of people and activity sparked a series of public and private discussions among neighbors, business owners, public officials and service providers. Proposals to convert the structure into a permanent shelter or a low-income housing development stalled, due in part to concerns that the area already supports a high percentage of low-income housing compared to other residential neighborhoods.

Last fall, as homeless community members reluctant to seek shelter downtown faced a cold season on Lake City’s streets, a new coalition stepped up to fill the gap left by the empty fire station. The Lake City Task Force on Homelessness, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and four other local churches (Seattle Mennonite Church, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Our Lady of the Lake Parish and Lake City Baptist Church) came together to offer homeless neighbors a rotating volunteer-run evening satellite shelter from November through March.  

Congregations have been helped in their efforts by revised state law, ESHB 1956, which more clearly defined the authority of religious bodies to house the homeless on congregational property in 2009. More recently, an ordinance unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council in 2011 authorized churches to host encampments for extended periods of time, as long as they meet basic public health and safety standards, promote good neighbor relations, prohibit banned substances and weapons, prohibit sex offenders and enforce rules related to the proximity of children within or near the shelter.

Both the state bill and the city ordinance can be traced to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law passed in 2000 which provides stronger protection for religious freedom as it pertains to land-use and prison setting contexts.

"This law has been the backbone of all efforts regionally to awaken jurisdictions to the right given a faith community to practice its mission, which includes serving those at risk,” explains Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the King County-based Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness. “RLUIPA is important because it does not limit the practice of a congregation’s mission to 90 days, 6 months, and so on, but rather, it is every day, all year.”

In early February, Our Lady of the Lake Parish, in the nearby neighborhood of Wedgwood, converted the daylight basement of its parish office into a temporary shelter. (Full disclosure: The author is a parishioner at Our Lady of the Lake.) Starting in November, church members worked to get paperwork and the facility in order. The shelter represents a new, albeit temporary use for the 1950s-era building, which was originally a cloistered convent, once used by Dominican sisters to launder their habits, watch the “Ed Sullivan Show” and play competitive ping pong.

Michael Palmer, parish administrator, explains that, without a clear guide to follow, his job began as “a process of weaving my way through the city, the city’s building department, and the permitting process.” Strict archdiocesan policies, insurance requirements and fire code regulations were also closely followed.

In the weeks before the shelter’s opening, subcommittees were formed to manage phone trees, schedule meal drop-offs, oversee facility cleaning responsibilities and organize hosting and liaison duties. Two Union Gospel Mission employees, responsible for screening guests, reinforcing ground rules and providing some supplies, were assigned to 12-hour shifts throughout the shelter’s operation, while parishioners, acting as hosts, would be relieved at midnight by fresh volunteers.

For the approximately five to fifteen men and women who arrived at night, chilled and foot-sore, fresh flowers, radiator-warmth and dark, strong coffee provided a semblance of home. Guests congregated around a long table to eat meals, tell stories and watch classic movies before heading at curfew to their camp-style mats and blankets.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

The Lake City neighborhood has been extremely welcoming of the many service providers into their community. However, they have taken on a much greater share of low-income and special needs housing than most Seattle neighborhoods and this has caused significant negative impact to the Lake City community. One result is a stressed relationship between businesses/residents and the faith-based shelters.

Hopefully, the interdepartmental task force organized by the Mayor's Office will continue to work collaboratively with the Lake City community to find a reasonable balance and healthy solutions to the major issues it faces.

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 10:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Lake City businesses have had a difficult time in the recession, and I sympathize with their desire to keep their doors open. However, Lake City does not have a disproportionate share of human services agencies and low-income housing. Whenever it is proposed that a new service or housing program be sited in any neighborhood in Seattle, merchants and many residents make that same claim, and it is almost always incorrect. The only area in which it might be correct is Southeast Seattle, which has the majority of services and housing, but also happens to have the least political power.

There comes a time when cities, counties, and the state must say to neighborhoods, "You are not a gated community. We need these facilities and we are going to site them where we have the space for them."

There also comes a time -- say, now -- when religious congregations must say to those same cities, counties, and the state, "We are doing everything we can to help people who are experiencing homelessness. This is not a religious-community problem, this is a whole-community problem. We need tax-funded services and housing so we don't have to constantly pull the babies out of the water."

sarah90

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 7:27 p.m. Inappropriate

You people simply look for the path of least resistance, and dump the problems there. Anyone who protests is demonized. Guess what? That works two ways. Look at today's Seattle Times. Your hero, Michael McGinn, has 15% support. Which is probably three times as high as you and your social service parasites have. You're rapidly wearing out your welcome.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

sarah90 - I completely disagree with you. Also, leaders in the housing and social services community who I have spoken with extensively on this topic also disagree with you. Lake City DOES have a disproportionate number of low-income housing units and social service organizations. Finally, Council and the Mayor's Office are starting to hear the neighborhood concerns over this and ponder a solution that is good for everyone.

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 10:21 p.m. Inappropriate

The Council and the Mayor's Office have heard neighborhood concerns over the firestation's use for several years -- that isn't just beginning. However, those concerns all boil down to "NIMBY".

The people in the housing and social services community I have spoken with don't feel what you claim. But I wouldn't characterize them as "leaders", nor would they; they are case managers and housing providers -- you know, the people who are actually on the ground. They know that more is needed everywhere, including Lake City.

sarah90

Posted Wed, Mar 6, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Give it up, Sarah. The neighbors are being heard. They are not NIMBY. Housing and social service leaders agree with the community. Change is coming to Lake City.

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 7:25 p.m. Inappropriate

You want to put these camps all over the place, because when it comes right down to it, you really don't give a rat's ass about Seattle's neighborhoods.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

NotFan and everyone: I live in Lake City. I want everyone in Lake City -- and in every neighborhood -- to sleep under a roof.

Would you prefer that they sleep in a doorway? If so, why?

sarah90

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 4:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I have only seen an improvement of the overall Lake City Community, in the caring ways towards helping the Under-served. We no longer see day after day a women gathered on the corner in Lake City sleeping under shopping carts, day after day, how long did the go on? Before a group who really cared took her in. The North Helpline Food Bank needs every one to help to provide for more people every week. The Winter Shelter rotating between churches has been amazing to support the needs of the truly homeless living outside..The Rotacare Clinic helps provide Medical Care for the past 3 years, Medical Teams International Dental Van helps to provide Dental care... all this is happening in Lake City to help the Community be a safer and more healthy community. If you think by not supporting these needs there will be less people on the street in Lake City that is just closing your eyes to what it could look like. DREAM BIG! Be part of the Solution by offering to help instead of closing your eyes to the current needs. As Emmett Watson would say be part of the "Lesser Seattle" these are the people who really care about this community.

Fredricka

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 8:42 p.m. Inappropriate

First Hill, Capitol Hill, and the downtown core must have the most social service agencies, providers, facilities, shelters, and homeless hangouts in Seattle! Anyone with specific numbers?

animalal

Posted Sat, Mar 9, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Like most things in life, solutions lie somewhere between the neo-nazi and the bleeding heart liberal. In large and diverse urban areas, homeless is an unfortunate reality that is not likely doomed to extinction. The heart of this excellent article speaks to the importance of neighborhoods taking ownership of the problem in small but meaningful ways. Public support must play a role, however, encouraging, supporting and getting involved in neighborhood endeavors to improve the lot of those less fortunate, is the best way to chip away at homelessness. Believing that one has done one's fair share by simply paying taxes or sending a monetary contribution is the legislative equivalent of "kicking the can down the road". Instead of just encouraging someone to pack up and move, try getting out from behind your keyboard and lend a hand.

SA5

Posted Sun, Mar 10, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

The more the churches and faith groups are involved, the better. The less the city is involved, the better.

Posted Sun, Mar 10, 5:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Improving the lot of those less fortunate can't simply consist of providing winter shelter or food and clothing banks. It entails the provision of job training, actual jobs, and actual housing. That can't be done on a micro level by the religious community; we don't have the funding or expertise. The only effective way to help people out of homelessness is by the larger community, through community resources. Yes, taxation, because that means contributions from everyone, not just people who want to help.

I'll be that most critics of tax-supported services who think that the "churches should do it" have not spent much time actually worked with congregational programs. Those critics haven't seen how awful it is when you must tell someone you don't have room for another mat on the floor, that you've run out of food, that you don't have any more childrens' coats. Those critics are expecting others to do what they don't care about doing.

sarah90

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