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

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.

Sometimes, a simple prayer would be read before dinner. Otherwise, interactions focused on providing basic needs and a safe, respectful, restorative environment. On Valentine’s Day, homemade cards crafted by children from the parish and chocolates were scattered over the table, resulting in guests penning their own thank-you note. As parishioners dropped off dinners, desserts and continental breakfasts in the early evening, pleasant chatter and a shared sense of purpose animated the room.

One repeat guest later commented that they were “treated as family.” Parishioners, too, reflected on the experience as personally enlightening, an opportunity to give as well as to receive. Father Tim Clark and Deacon Roy Harrington both supported the idea of the shelter when it was brought to them by the parish’s Justice and Peace Committee. "[This service] brought into our community, through compassion, another face of God," explained Lorraine Hartmann, shelter coordinator for the parish.

Dannette Smith, Director of the Seattle Human Services Department, sees the importance of engaging faith communities in the effort to end homelessness. She envisions a time when churches could be seen as “outposts” providing wide-ranging social services in addition to emergency or transitional shelter. According to Smith, the Seattle Human Services Department plans to increase its efforts to coordinate and provide support to congregations involved in homeless outreach over the next year.

Gretchen Bruce, the Acting Director for the Committee to End Homelessness, explained that under the Ten Year Plan To End Homelessness it was always the intention that “we would 'stage' learning and interventions…explore one area, learn from it, do it well, then move on to the next.”

Based on prior research and trends, the committee recently decided to balance their investments in order to increase shelter capacity, alongside continued response to other needs. It’s a priority that the recent One Night Count clearly highlighted, with 2,736 men, women, and children counted sleeping on the streets or in their cars in King County.

A few other rotating shelter models are currently serving the homeless from various sites around the city. Mary's Place, a shelter for women and children, is run through partnerships with 13 faith communities that agree to shelter homeless families at their own sites for one week per quarter year-round. The organization is currently working to replicate this shelter by recruiting the participation of 13 additional congregations. In Madrona, a two-parent family shelter called Julia’s Place runs on a slightly different model. Volunteers from other congregations travel to a single site, Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church, for hosting and food delivery shifts.

One consequence of Old Firestation 39's use as a homeless shelter is that Lake City neighborhood and business groups have improved communication and outreach among community members; a development that is especially well-timed considering the anticipated redevelopment of a prime swath of real estate by the Pierre family of Lake City car-lot fame. Meanwhile, Lake City residents continue to reflect on and wrestle with a collective vision for the neighborhood’s future. Many are working towards a time when their community will be known as much for its family-friendly recreation and entertainment options as it is for its bountiful transit options, access to social services and affordability.

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