Backers say they have the perfect place for a men’s shelter with scores of transitional housing units. But some neighbors worry because the plan would allow men who have criminal records or problems with addiction.
After a homeless man died of exposure near a Bellevue freeway ramp in 2007, city leaders asked the faith-based nonprofit Congregations for the Homeless to run a winter shelter from November through March. The emergency shelter, which has housed as many as 100 men, has had to move four times since 2008 as its various sites were sold or redeveloped.
But a proposal to build a permanent men’s shelter with a day center and 40 to 60 units of supportive housing near Interstate 90 in Eastgate is meeting with opposition from neighbors. About 1,700 residents have signed a petition opposing the location and raising concerns about crime, an influx of homeless people from Seattle, and the impacts to the surrounding community, including nearby Bellevue College, where students as young as 15 attend Running Start classes.
“A facility of that size and magnitude, it will attract people, hundreds of people,” said Tzachi Litov, who lives about a mile south of the site. “It feels like King County wants to move their problems to Eastgate.”
City and county leaders say it’s critical for cities outside of Seattle to step up and address the homelessness crisis that led to the declaration of a regional emergency a year ago. They say that Congregations for the Homeless has an excellent record of moving people into permanent housing from its smaller men’s shelter that has rotated among a dozen Eastside churches since 1993.
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Advocates praise the location of the proposed shelter, adjacent to a Metro park-and-ride lot and on the same 4.3-acre property as a clinic for Public Health — Seattle & King County County. A wooded hillside behind the site rises to Bellevue College.
“The bus service is fabulous. Public Health is next door. The college, with its job training and WorkSource center, is just up the hill. It’s not just a good site, it’s the best site I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Roberts, managing director of Congregations for the Homeless.
The Bellevue City Council will hold a study session on the permanent shelter and supportive housing plan Nov. 28 at City Hall. A final decision could be made in early 2017. If approved, the new shelter facility could open in 2019.
Few question that homelessness is a serious problem, even in Bellevue.
The One Night Count in January found 245 people sleeping outside on the Eastside, up from 134 in 2015. Bellevue Police earlier this year found people living in 50 vehicles within the city. And the Bellevue School District reported 245 homeless children last school year.
County statistics show homeless shelters are concentrated in Seattle. Currently, just 140 of almost 1,600 county-funded, year-round shelter beds are located on the Eastside, and just 35 of those are available to single men.
In 2012, Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond agreed to begin addressing homelessness by adding permanent shelters, with Bellevue taking on a men’s shelter, and Kirkland a 100-bed shelter for women and families. A 20-bed youth shelter was already operating in Redmond.
“Just housing men in winter on a temporary basis, off by themselves without services, was not doing the job,” said Bellevue Mayor John Stokes. “We decided we really needed a permanent shelter.”
The estimated $23 million project would be built by Congregations for the Homeless and the Kirkland nonprofit Imagine Housing. The shelter and day center are estimated to cost about $5 million and the supportive housing about $18 million. County, state and federal tax credits, low-income housing grants and private donations would help cover construction costs.
But the decision by the Bellevue City Council on Aug. 2 to work with King County to pursue the Public Health site and develop funding and program strategies caught many residents by surprise.
One of neighbors’ biggest concerns is the proposed shelter’s low-barrier entry criteria, which won’t exclude men if they’re experiencing addiction or mental-health problems or have criminal records.
Congregations for the Homeless said no drugs, alcohol or weapons are allowed in their shelter and anyone with disruptive behavior is asked to leave. The staff will notify police if any men are sex offenders, said Managing Director Roberts.
Tom Perea, another Eastgate neighbor, is worried the shelter could become a magnet for criminals.
“No one is opposed to helping these men, but if someone in the shelter is using drugs, he’s not asked to stop. If I’m a drug dealer, where am I going to go to sell my drugs?”
Perea called on the City Council to stop the site-selection process, convene stakeholders from throughout Bellevue and determine the appropriate size, place and restrictions for a men’s shelter.
Roberts said the current winter shelter is also a low-barrier shelter, meaning these men are already in the community. He said plans for the permanent shelter envision a co-located day center with case managers and resources for drug and alcohol treatment, mental illness, employment, housing, legal problems, medical and dental treatment and other support services.
“This is the same shelter, the same size, the same staff and the same entry criteria we’ve had for the past three years and which will be in place for the next three years while a new shelter is built,” said Roberts.
The organization will open its winter shelter Tuesday in a vacant, city-owned building on Auto Row, just east of Interstate 405 on 116th Avenue Northeast.
City leaders say they are committed to identifying all the community concerns and developing a detailed mitigation plan. The Bellevue Police Department is analyzing crime data around the previous winter shelter to see if there were any problems over the past three years. Police and city leaders also plan to visit two similarly sized shelters in Tacoma and Portland to research the challenges and the lessons learned, said Major Carl Kleinknecht.
Bellevue College administrators say they are working with the city on plans for the proposed homeless shelter and don’t oppose the location.
“We’re the community’s college so we’re always looking for ways to help the community,” said Nicole Beattie, communications director.
Some neighbors support the proposed location. Colin Jenkel lives in the Eastgate neighborhood, works in downtown Bellevue and attends Bellevue College. He said he sees the homeless on downtown streets and living in vehicles in his neighborhood and in the parking lot of a local grocery store.
He said that on the social- media site Nextdoor.com, shelter opponents have been “heaping vitriol” on the shelter proposal, with some residents saying they paid a premium for homes in Bellevue to avoid Seattle problems such as homelessness.
“I worked hard to buy into Bellevue, too, but that doesn’t entitle me to close the doors on those in need,” Jenkel said.
Cynthia Flash, who lives in the Somerset neighborhood south of Eastgate, said her temple, B’nai Torah, has hosted a homeless tent encampment four times in the past decade and she has prepared meals and sat through her own discomfort to get to know some of the homeless residents.
“There are homeless people in Bellevue now. They’re in tents in the woods. We see them on the street corners, the same people for years. We need to serve this population or the situation will only get worse,” she said.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the housing units as transitional. The proposal includes plans for 40 to 60 units of permanent, supportive housing.
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 14, 2016, was corrected Nov. 14, 2016. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for the website Nextdoor.com.