The Rivoli has provided dozens of affordable apartments for low-income Seattle residents for more than three decades.
But lately, on-site property manager Jill Lessig has had trouble filling vacant units. She says prospective tenants have been scared off by the “chaos and mayhem” that have accompanied the proliferation of tents outside in the historic Belltown building on the 2100 block of Second Avenue.
Will the newly announced Partnership for Zero bring peace to the neighborhood and others like it? King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and a coalition of business, government leaders and philanthropists think so. Their plan, announced Thursday, is to hire peer navigators to help unsheltered people get the resources and support they need to come inside and stay stably housed.
It’s a good idea, inspired by similar successful programs and vetted by people with lived experience. But to really heal the city, leaders should also engage the housed neighbors who have been helplessly watching this humanitarian crisis unfold on their doorsteps.
“I think people are just confused about what to do, honestly,” said Timothy Firth, who runs an art studio and gallery in the Rivoli. “The city has given us no tools.”
When someone smashed in the Rivoli’s front door Monday, it was just the latest in an escalating series of incidents including fires, assaults, threats, gunshots, thefts and shattered windows. But everyone I met there expressed empathy for the city’s unsheltered residents. Their frustration is with the drug dealers and criminal actors who use the encampment as cover. They’re tired of the trash, vandalism, human waste and misery. They’re fed up with the city’s tepid response, but they don’t know what to do.
As Lessig and I chatted outside the Rivoli last Tuesday, we were joined by a woman who said she had been living outside until recently. Now that she’s got a place to stay, she feels lonely. “I’m not at home there like I should be,” she said of her new apartment. That’s not a problem that money or outreach can solve.
Later, Lessig took me inside to see one of her vacant units. It was tiny, light and airy, with a peekaboo view of the waterfront. A sign taped to the door of a nearby unit read: “Hey neighbor do you need anything? If so, please reach out.” The city is filled with people who have the same impulse. We can’t afford to squander this abundant resource. As I wrote in an August column, “At the end of the day, eliminating homelessness is going to be about connecting with people. There’s no single right way to do that. But if small, committed groups take up the challenge … we might actually get it done.”
That column was about We Heart Seattle, the volunteer cleanup effort started by Andrea Suarez. Now a registered nonprofit, the group says its volunteers have logged more than 4,000 hours at 139 litter cleanups. Along the way, they’ve connected with dozens of people living in encampments, helping many find shelter, employment, treatment or help with other needs. They’ve opened two offices in vacant storefronts donated by landlords, including one in Belltown, just a few blocks from the Rivoli.
I introduced Suarez to Lessig last Tuesday, and they quickly started talking about how to fill those vacant apartments. Both were so animated by the prospect, they were talking over one another. Before they parted ways, they actually hugged.
Suarez’ approach continues to rankle in some circles even as it resonates in others. In addition to volunteer hours and office space, the group says donors have contributed a van, furniture, laptops and about $300,000 in cash. But earlier this month, Suarez was ejected from a Regional Homelessness Authority meeting for outreach workers, after she’d been invited to participate. RHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said it was an “honest misunderstanding” and that the closed work group was intended only for contracted providers.
Some jobs are best left to professionals, but community is cultivated. It just makes sense to give neighbors and volunteer groups the tools, support and encouragement they need to help.
Are you part of a community-based group working to help neighbors experiencing homelessness? I’d love to hear from you.