The Bellevue City Council voted Monday night to move forward with plans to build a permanent men’s homeless shelter in Eastgate, but will also take 45 days to look at two other sites.
The Bellevue City Council on Monday night voted 4-3 to move forward with plans to build a permanent men’s homeless shelter in the Eastgate neighborhood near Interstate 90.
But after a lengthy discussion and public testimony, the council added a 45-day period to analyze two alternate sites — one on city-owned property near downtown where the current winter shelter is located and another in a Sound Transit maintenance yard in BelRed.
The decision represented a compromise between three council members who were ready to approve the Eastgate site and develop additional design, financing and safety plans, and three council members who said they wanted answers to those and other questions before selecting a site.
“Forty-five days from now we can look at this with better information,” said Councilmember Ernie Simas, who cast the deciding vote after being appointed to the council just three weeks ago. “If it takes a year longer to build than at Eastgate but it’s a better site, that’s the way we should go.”
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City leaders pledged that any new shelter would reflect Bellevue values, including expectations that it would help the men become self-sufficient and exit homelessness and that the city’s quality of life and public safety be maintained.
The Eastgate site is adjacent to a county public-health clinic, a Metro park-and-ride lot and down a wooded hillside from Bellevue College. The council also agreed to create a project advisory committee made up of neighboring businesses, residents, the police and local congregations to help guide the city’s work on shelter design and operations.
The proposed 100-bed facility would be the first permanent men’s shelter on the Eastside. Bellevue’s current emergency shelter is open from November through April and has had to move four times since 2008 as its temporary sites were sold or redeveloped.
The proposal, which also includes a day center with support services and 50 to 60 units of affordable housing, had strong support from the city’s faith communities. Several dozen members of Eastside congregations packed the standing-room-only council meeting wearing red to show their support for the project.
A formerly homeless man, Robert Odom, told the council that it’s hard to find a job when you show up for an interview with a backpack and a bed roll. He said Congregations for the Homeless, which has operated a year-round men’s shelter that rotates through 12 Eastside churches since 1993, gave him and other men a stable place to move forward with their lives, find jobs and housing.
A representative from Bellevue College’s student association, Jahkari Singh, said some students, faculty and staff have faced housing insecurity and want to partner with the shelter operators and police to make the shelter a safe environment.
“It could be a great service learning opportunity for students,” he said.
The men’s shelter was adamantly opposed by some residents who worried that it would transform their clean, relatively crime-free suburb into a blight of tent encampments and a concentration of dangerous men.
Kathryn Kitchen said she could never have imagined that the city would potentially import crime and hazardous waste to her south Bellevue neighborhood.
“The homeless do have problems with addiction, drug use, alcohol. The homeless do bring an increase in crime. I’m not against the shelter. I’m concerned about the location and the proximity to our neighborhood,” she said.
Opponents also objected to the shelter’s low-barrier entry criteria, which don’t exclude men who have addictions, mental-health problems or criminal records.
John Carlson, conservative radio host and Bellevue resident, called the Eastgate site, below Bellevue College, “totally inappropriate.”
“A day center that does not check for criminal backgrounds or outstanding warrants located at the base of a wooded area next to a lightly policed college campus? What could possibly go wrong?” he asked.
More than 2,800 people signed a petition opposing the Eastgate location, citing their concerns about lowering property values and the threat to public safety.
Mayor John Stokes warned the other council members that any alternate site would provoke similar neighborhood opposition and said he didn’t want progress toward building a shelter to languish in an “endless churn” of city deliberations.
Stokes, Deputy Mayor John Chelminiak and Councilmember Lynne Robinson joined Simas in voting to give preliminary approval to the Eastgate site, while also considering the two other locations. Councilmembers Jennifer Robertson, Conrad Lee and Kevin Wallace voted no.
Bellevue staff evaluated five sites that were publicly owned, near transit and with access to health care and other services before recommending the Eastgate location.
Steve Roberts, managing director of Congregations for the Homeless, said that until a site is finalized, it will be difficult to engage neighbors in how to make it work.
He said men in the shelter must adhere to rules that prohibit drugs, alcohol and weapons and are asked to leave if their behavior becomes disruptive. He said shelter staff do inform police about residents’ sex-offender status and inquire about outstanding warrants in an effort to help the men clear up any legal issues, but he said the information is self-reported.
Last year, the City Council unanimously approved establishing a permanent homeless shelter to be ready in winter 2019.
Bellevue city staff have spent hundreds of hours during the past several months researching best practices for similarly sized men’s shelters. Additionally, they and city police visited shelters in Tacoma and Portland to learn about design, safety and interactions with neighbors.
City Planning Director Dan Stroh briefed the council this month on their key findings, which included building strong relationships between service providers and clients, a strong association between the shelter and local law enforcement, and active engagement with the surrounding neighborhood.