With the recent opening of a day center for homeless families, the city of Kirkland hopes to move forward early next year with plans for a 24/7 shelter for homeless women and families.
As cold and snow hit the region this week, homeless families have a new resource on the Eastside — a day center In Kirkland where they could take their children after school, and get a shower and a hot meal.
The New Bethlehem Project, which opened in early November in a Kirkland church, is praised by advocates as a welcome addition for families whose only previous option was sleeping in their cars, or at an overnight winter shelter at a Redmond church that doesn’t open until 8:30 p.m. and closes at 7:30 a.m.
But the four churches behind the day center and the city of Kirkland have greater ambitions — a 24-hour shelter for families and for single women to help ease the area’s homeless crisis and expand services on the Eastside.
Kirkland officials hope to finalize the site selection in early 2017 and move forward with plans to build two co-located shelters, one for single women and one for families with children, each with space for up to 50 people.
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The city’s commitment to opening the new shelters comes as Bellevue city leaders are considering building a permanent men’s shelter in the Eastgate neighborhood. Almost 2,500 people have signed a petition objecting to the proposal, saying it will hurt property values and threaten the safety of residents and Bellevue College students. Bellevue leaders are also supposed to make a decision early next year.
Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett said the response to both the family day center and the plans for a permanent one has been positive, although a final location hasn’t been selected.
“So far, we have not had that kind of negative reaction,” he said, adding that the city plans to do more extensive outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods once a permanent shelter site has been selected.
Triplett said the Kirkland City Council in 2015 set aside $850,000 from the sale of a city building to go toward a new homeless shelter. Additionally, the council increased to $415,000 its 2017 and 2018 appropriations to ARCH — the coalition of Eastside cities that pools funds for affordable housing and shelters.
At the same time, churches in the Kirkland area were also asking how they could help families experiencing homelessness on the Eastside.
The Rev. Kurt Nagle of Holy Family Parish said that, working with advocates, they identified the need for a day center — a warm, dry place where homeless families could shower and do laundry while their children played or did homework.
One persuasive argument, he said, was the reported 600 homeless children enrolled in the Bellevue and Lake Washington School Districts last year.
“That struck home. We think about the guy by the offramp, but we don’t see the homeless children,” he said.
Working with St. Louise Parish in Bellevue, the congregations raised $500,000 by the time the day center opened.
“It wasn’t a hard sell,” he said.
But the Catholic churches didn’t have space for a shelter. They found a partner in Salt House Church, a small congregation with an unused basement less than a quarter-mile from Holy Family. Salt House, a satellite church of the larger Holy Spirit Lutheran, agreed to a three-year lease and a partnership with Catholic Community Services to operate the day center.
Salt House is also considering selling a corner of its three-acre property for the permanent women and families shelter. That’s a decision the congregation, and the building’s owner, Holy Spirit, will make in January, said Kim Saunders, ministry team lead.
“We knew that for families experiencing homelessness on the Eastside, being a day center was not going to address the long-term needs,” Saunders said.
Still, she said, there are many unknowns about having a 24/7 shelter on the same property as the church, as well as the wisdom of permanently selling part of its land.
The new day center features a large, daylight kitchen where volunteers prepare snacks and a hot dinner each night. There’s a spacious shower in each of two large bathrooms. The other half of the shelter has washers and dryers and a children’s play area lined with books and toys.
Karina O’Malley, a coordinator of a safe parking program for homeless families at Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, called the new day center “a Godsend.”
“The hours are so thoughtful and helpful. Every family that we’ve sent there comes back raving about how it’s such a welcoming space,” she said.
As rents on the Eastside rise, O’Malley said homeless families that were spending a month or two in their church parking lot are now staying four to six months before they find affordable housing.
So far, the day center at Salt House hasn’t drawn any neighborhood opposition. The church is bordered on the south by Lake Washington High School, to the east by Kirkland Cemetery and to the north by a King County Housing Authority complex.
That could change, of course, with a proposal for a permanent shelter designed to serve up to 100 people around the clock.
Triplett, the city manager, said the city will hold community meetings before going forward with a new shelter. But he also observed that serving women and families is likely less controversial than a clientele of single homeless men.
“It’s a population people feel a lot more empathy for and want to help,” Triplett said.
He also pointed to a September report commissioned by Seattle and King County that recommended moving the homeless more quickly into housing rather than leaving them to cycle through emergency shelters.
“Shelters alone are not a winning strategy,” Triplett said. “Shelters consume a lot of resources. The same people are coming back time and again.”
He said plans for the Kirkland shelter envision shared, wraparound services including counseling, job placement and help finding housing. The shelter would be operated by a nonprofit, most likely Catholic Community Services or The Sophia Way, which assists women who are homeless.
The discovery last week in Kirkland of a badly decomposed body in a sleeping bag highlighted the vulnerability of people without shelter. Kirkland police say the 60-year- old man had a lengthy history of homelessness and mental illness.
The frigid weather is also a reminder that homelessness can be a matter of life and death, said Triplett.
“Permanent shelters need to be built in both Bellevue and Kirkland as soon as possible,” he said.