When Brian Bellinger came to Blaine Center, one of the homeless shelters contracted by the city of Seattle, he thought he’d found an opportunity to get stable and grow. He’d come a long way in his recovery from alcohol and drug addictions, and said he was looking to come back to the place he was born to get in touch with his Native American roots.

Instead, he said he got hit with a notice four months after moving in: Pay the shelter $378 in rent or leave.

Compass Housing Alliance, the nonprofit that runs Blaine Center and has a contract with the city, told The Seattle Times that the rent was part of a voluntary program meant to teach residents about budgeting skills outside of the shelter. So far this year, 1,035 nightly fees were paid, about 7% of all stays, according to Compass. The rule was not enforced, according to the nonprofit, and no one left the shelter because of inability to pay.

The notice Bellinger, 50, received suggested otherwise.

“If you fail to pay the above-mentioned rent within the time period mentioned above, the tenancy will be forfeited at the end of that time period and you must vacate and surrender the Premises to the Landlord by 12 NOON on July 27, 2019,” the June notice read.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

“I’m told I’m in a contracted bed and now you hit me with a bill,” Bellinger said in an interview with The Seattle Times this week, adding he didn’t know he was in the voluntary program until he received the payment notice. “This is wrong as a taxpayer to discover that shelters are charging the homeless people.”

Compass Housing Alliance now says that it is “deeply disturbed by” the notice Bellinger received, and that it was a new version of an of older memo. Only three people, including Bellinger, received the new notice, according to Compass, and Blaine Center’s program manager has been suspended as a result.

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“We are deeply disturbed by the document Mr. Bellinger received,” said Suzanne Sullivan, Compass’ chief advancement officer, by email. “The material, its content, the tone and the spirit in which it was given is not in alignment with Compass Housing’s mission, vision, values, best practices, or program approach.”

Enhanced shelter beds like the one Bellinger is using make up a critical part of Seattle’s efforts to get people into housing. Last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan led an effort to increase the availability of shelter beds by 25% — many of them enhanced beds that allow people to access case management and other programming during the day.

Getting people into any kind of shelter bed can be a challenge and can require multiple conversations with outreach workers. Bellinger said Blaine Center’s decision to require payment of him could be one of the reasons some people prefer to stay outside.

Bellinger only discovered in his 30s that he was born to a Native family in Seattle, but adopted by white parents in Vancouver. He had experienced homelessness intermittently over the last 13 years, but after getting sober, he had come back to Seattle to see if he could track down his biological parents and learn more about his culture.

Since February, he’s been staying in a bunk bed at Blaine Center’s dormitory-style center, and has access to a common-area kitchen. He got a job with the Millionair Club at CenturyLink Field serving beer and was trying to get his life in order to save up for permanent housing.

So when he got the shelter bill, he began making payments, he said.

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But as the weeks added up – at $21 per week – Bellinger said he had to resort to using a housing voucher he earned from a Millionair Club job training program for $468 to pay off his “rent.”

All told, Bellinger said Blaine Center received $673 through his cash payments and the Millionair Club since February 

The city had funded Blaine Center at $720,477 for 2019. According to county data from June, the shelter had a 51% rate of exit to permanent housing, well above the emergency shelter average.

The city said it discovered the shelter’s rental program last month and told Compass Housing Alliance to stop asking residents for rent and reimburse them, according to The C Is for Crank news website, which first reported the payments on Thursday.

Mary Steele, the new interim executive director of Compass Housing Alliance as of last week, said the voluntary payment program has existed since 2009. Bellinger’s balance was the largest of the three people who were currently participating, Steele said, while the other two residents’ balances were about $40.

The rental program was not a way for the shelter to make money, Steele said.

“Really this has nothing to do with the cost of running a shelter,” Steele said, though she added that the city’s contract does not cover the full cost of the shelter.

Meg Olberding, spokeswoman for the city’s Human Services Department, said the city only discovered Compass was charging shelter fees last month. The city informed Compass that charging such a fee violated contract expectations, Olberding said, and Compass provided the city with documentation of reimbursement to rental program participants in full.

Bellinger disputes that. He said he was paid back only $120 of the $205 he directly paid in cash. He also wants to see the housing voucher money returned to him.

“I want the control of my life back so it’s not in the hands of the Blaine Center, the Millionair Club or the city of Seattle,” Bellinger said. 

Compass Housing Alliance said it was looking into the discrepancy and intends “to reimburse Mr. Bellinger in full and are in the process of reviewing our records in support.”

When asked if Compass was in the process of reimbursing other participants in the program since 2009, Steele said the organization would have to look at its records.

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Bellinger’s housing voucher was returned to the Millionair Club. A spokesperson from the Millionair Club said that Bellinger still has $500 in housing assistance available to him.

According to Steele, many other organizations like Compass also charge shelter fees — Bread Of Life Mission, for example, requires a $5 overnight fee and valid ID.

Unlike Blaine and Compass, however, the city does not help fund Bread Of Life.

Bellinger told the Seattle Times that he now believes the issue is bigger than himself. He thinks it speaks more broadly about the homeless-services system.

“It’s not just me that’s experiencing this,” Bellinger said. “This whole thing isn’t about me. I just want my money back, but they’re doing something wrong that they weren’t supposed to be doing in the first place.”