Bill Hobson, whose fierce advocacy provided shelter for thousands of Seattle’s homeless, has died. “There is no such thing as a throwaway person,” he said.
Bill Hobson used to say, “There is no such thing as a throwaway person,” and he spent much of his life taking on anyone, no matter how powerful or well-placed, who might think otherwise.
The former director of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, who for more than 30 years found new ways to shelter and advocate for those who were homeless, disabled, addicted and mentally ill, died at his home Friday. He was 76.
“He was passionate about life and humanity, a great humanitarian and a tremendous defender and protector of the poor,” said his friend Clark Kimerer, a former assistant Seattle police chief.
Daniel Malone, the service center’s current executive director, said Mr. Hobson’s death was announced at a Friday night fundraiser for the organization, turning the event into an impromptu celebration of a great life and a rededication to the principles for which he fought.
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“The incredible legacy of Bill Hobson will remain a guide to the legions of Hobsonites who will continue to press for his message that safe, supportive housing, properly integrated with support services, is the humane, effective solution,” Kimerer said.
Mr. Hobson started work at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in 1984 as an entry-level counselor and became executive director in 1988. He retired from that position last year.
“I have eaten, slept, lived and breathed homelessness for 31 years,” Mr. Hobson told The Seattle Times in 2015, as he stepped down from DESC.
When DESC was founded, five years before Mr. Hobson arrived, it operated a single overnight shelter, the Morrison Hotel in downtown Seattle, for about 250 adults.
As of last year, the organization’s 10 residential programs housed 1,100 people, accommodating an additional 275 each night in emergency shelters and helping hundreds more with a variety of clinical services. In the course of a year, DESC assists about 7,000 people.
Mr. Hobson believed that getting vulnerable people into safe and stable housing had to happen first before all the financial, health and social problems many faced could be addressed.
One of the agency’s most scrutinized projects was the four-story so-called “wet” apartment building at 1811 Eastlake. The residence, opened in 2005, was the first in the state to allow chronic inebriates.
The premise is that the 75 men and women who live there at any given time are better able to access treatment and recover from alcoholism without the pressing stress of homelessness.
The project was built despite a legal challenge by nearby businesses, and criticism from many sources, including a Seattle Times editorial that said, “If government is going to build housing for 75 alcoholics, at least it should insist they quit drinking in order to live there.”
“He faced significant and well-placed opposition with the 1811, but he turned out to be absolutely right,” said the Rev. Rick Reynolds, executive director of Operation Nightwatch, a ministry serving the poor and homeless.
Reynolds noted that University of Washington research conducted before and after the housing project was established found millions of dollars were saved.
It turned out, the housing cost less than the visits to jails, detox centers and emergency rooms its occupants would have made if homeless. And, according to the UW study, during their first two years in the building, residents cut heavy drinking by 35 percent.
“There was absolutely no one like him in terms of fearlessness and devotion to the most vulnerable people in the community,” said Reynolds.
“He could be prickly, but he was charitable and fair and I have nothing but total respect for the man,” he said. “This is a blow.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Saturday called Hobson a “towering figure” among local and national homeless advocates, a leader “who pushed all of us to challenge stereotypes and move past our prejudices.”
Murray, a former state senator, recalled Hobson’s work in Olympia, pressing state officials to fund housing and to help people struggling with mental illness or addiction.
“Bill did more than just provide a voice for the voiceless,” Murray added in a prepared statement. “He was a larger than life personality who fought tirelessly to make this city a better and more compassionate place.”
Growing homelessness in Seattle and other West Coast cities led Murray to proclaim a state of emergency late last year.
At the region’s annual One Night Count in January, volunteers tallied more than 4,500 people sleeping outside in Seattle and across King County.
The 2016 estimate of people without shelter showed a 19 percent increase over last year, and the 2015 tally of 3,772 was a significant increase over the count in 2014.
Working with the homeless was Mr. Hobson’s second career. He held a doctorate in political science and once served as chairman of the political science department at the University of Puget Sound.
Partly in reaction to the pain of a divorce, Mr. Hobson said, he left teaching in 1980 and traveled to Nicaragua, staying about a year learning about attempted agrarian reform and social revolution.
Kimerer said he did not know the cause of Mr. Hobson’s death, adding that his passing was not expected. Kimerer said Mr. Hobson died at home.
“We expected him to outlive most of us because he was so passionate about life and humanity,” Kimerer said. “He breathed his ethics and walked the walk. He unequivocally wanted to heal and improve the lives of people and wanted to make society a better place.”
Malone, who worked with Mr. Hobson for 26 years before succeeding him as executive director, said, “One of my favorite lines of his is that ‘There is no such thing as a throwaway person,’ and that just formed the foundation for how this organization and all the people in it work.”