Breaking news: Something worked.
After weeks of squabbling and lobbing insults, various leaders on homelessness have come together — or, more accurately, been pushed — to open that brand-new, but unused, tiny home village in Rainier Beach that had become a symbol of bureaucratic dysfunction.
“I’m hoping this whole episode can be a teachable moment,” suggested Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, “for how in the future we can shelter the homeless without all the drama.”
Now hold on — no drama may be too big of an ask. So let’s just stick to the immediate win, which is that 40 units of desperately needed shelter now are coming online after all.
Officials said they’ve come up with $750,000 to operate the shuttered tiny home village, which the Low Income Housing Institute, or LIHI, completed in March. It has stood there vacant since it was rejected for operating funding by the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, or RHA.
I won’t revisit the multiple rounds of finger-pointing that ensued — other than that it culminated in the spokesperson for the authority calling the network of tiny home villages, which were painstakingly built by volunteers, “shantytowns.”
Well, that broke the dam.
Two things then happened.
One: The CEO of the authority, Marc Dones, apologized.
“Good morning all,” Dones wrote to Seattle officials. “I’m writing to apologize for an inappropriate and unauthorized comment made by a staff member in the media concerning Tiny House Villages, which — to be clear — does not represent the position of the RHA as an agency.”
Dones said there are 13 such villages with more than 500 beds, and they “serve an important role in the shelter system.” The agency doesn’t want a “significant scaling up” of more villages, but, the letter conceded, it does want to “bring more shelter online as quickly as possible.”
In other words: We’re reversing course and now willing to back the dang thing.
The other prod came from something called the “Lucky Seven Foundation.”
This is a little-known Seattle group that gives out hundreds of grants a year, usually in the $1,000 to $5,000 range, to arts and social service groups around Puget Sound. It’s named after the seven members of the Frances and Manson Backus family (two parents plus five kids). They’re old-school Seattle back to the 1800s.
“That article about an empty shelter going unused, it just put me over the top,” says John Backus, the youngest of the seven.
“It’s absurd for Seattle, with all our problems. We’ve got a new homeless shelter sitting there ready to go and we’re not going to use it? So I just thought, ‘We’ve got to get that open.’ ”
Lucky Seven is pledging $250,000 to the cause — “a pretty big deal for us,” Backus said.
Dones wrote to LIHI on Tuesday that with the private donation, the RHA could tap $500,000 in COVID relief funds to make up the rest.
Dones is due to discuss this in front of the city’s homelessness committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday. LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, said she’s holding an opening ceremony at the village across from the Rainier Beach light rail station on Thursday, and then hopes to start sheltering people there soon after.
Lee said she’s pleased with the outcome. But she remained frustrated, especially about an RHA claim that the agency wasn’t told the shelter was finished. Lee says LIHI talked about that in an interview as part of the bid process.
Last week, she wrote to the city, asking them to take the dramatic act of pulling LIHI’s contracts back from the new regional agency.
“This is not inspiring confidence in RHA — this is a real threat to programs that benefit vulnerable homeless people,” Lee wrote about the feud.
“I feel there is still a rift over these villages,” Lee told me Tuesday. “It needs to be resolved.”
Councilmember Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, took a more optimistic view.
“I think what we have just proven, in admittedly a roundabout way, is that there is tremendous energy in this city to move forward on homelessness,” Lewis said. “The takeaway here is that people aren’t going to tolerate inaction. So I think you’re going to see a shift, toward more cooperation, more action.”
He concluded: “We did get there eventually. After trying everything else.”
New city motto? Just kidding. Good news doesn’t come often or easy in the fraught world of homelessness aid. So best to receive it, Seattle, no matter what strange route it took to get here.