The Urban Rest Stop has been helping homeless people in downtown Seattle with personal hygiene and laundry for 10 years.

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Here is an extra name to add to your holiday shopping list: the Urban Rest Stop.

For 10 quietly extraordinary years, this has been downtown Seattle’s Miracle on Ninth Avenue, helping homeless people with the basics: restrooms, showers and laundry. Perhaps the most basic and successful community outreach you never heard about.

Thousands of men, women and families knocked down by the economy have a place to clean up and wash their clothes. The doors at 1924 Ninth Ave., a half block off Virginia, open at 5:30 a.m. weekdays, so people can shower before work after another homeless night.

The hygiene center is operated by the nonprofit Low-Income Housing Institute, which owns and manages 1,600 units of housing in and around Seattle. Using funds from the city of Seattle, federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, corporations and foundations and private donations, the Urban Rest Stop opens early, closes late and operates on the weekends.

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All the services are free. Overhead is kept low in part by program manager Ronni Gilboa’s relentless bargain hunting for all the supplies to stock toilets, showers and keep the washing machines humming.

My curiosity about the Urban Rest Stop was piqued by the harrumphing and arm-waving that attends the Tent City projects and Mayor Mike McGinn’s laudable effort to develop more shelter space on city property on Airport Way South.

The Urban Rest Stop is remarkably unremarkable. Housed in the former Julie Apartments, the hygiene center is at street level, with 47 units of low-income, transitional housing above. A modest sign hangs over the sidewalk.

Inside, clients read donated books and leaf through old National Geographics while their clothes are washing. Coveralls are provided for those who are laundering their only set of clothes

The Urban Rest Stop has restrooms for men and women, washers and dryers, and five private showers with sinks, toilets, mirrors and shelf space for gear. Shower times must be scheduled in person. Washers and dryers are also scheduled, but can be reserved by phone. This is a busy place, and time and facilities are precious.

The Urban Rest Stop is a byproduct of a court settlement after a bitter fight and three-year lawsuit over, basically, public toilets for street people in the Glen Hotel on Third Avenue. One of the fiercest opponents of that 1990s battle, the Downtown Seattle Association, is one of the Urban Rest Stop’s proudest supporters.

DSA President Kate Joncas describes the hygiene center — launched in part by the DSA — as a valuable downtown asset and a good neighbor that has never drawn complaints.

That assessment is confirmed by an actual neighbor, Karen Tuff, who lives and works in The Cosmopolitan, a high-rise condominium residence across the street. A former Belltown resident, Tuff describes the Urban Rest Stop as tidy, well-run with no “ominous characters” hanging about who have ever made her, her employees or visiting family members uncomfortable.

The Urban Rest Stop values the support of downtown churches, and opens its doors for school projects. Gilboa is especially pleased that an expansion in 2007 created space for twice-a-week visits by nurses from the Health Care for the Homeless network. Medical students from the University of Washington donate time, as does a haircutter who helps keep clients trimmed up for work and job interviews.

Gilboa credits the program’s success to her staff providing a valued service and treating people with respect and dignity. Clients respond to the consistent, reliable service with loyalty and good behavior, summed up as, “you will not be a jerk at the rest stop.”

Gilboa is a veteran of social-service management. Her work is grounded in “keeping people healthy, safe and alive.” The essence of the Urban Rest Stop.

Lance Dickie’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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