When Biancco Gardner founded Damascus Homes LLC in May 2017, he was filling a desperate need for sober housing for some of the Puget Sound region’s most vulnerable people. Families on the cusp of homelessness, people leaving prison, those suffering from addiction or mental illness.
By his own telling, Gardner, 48, was all too familiar with the need after his own struggle with homelessness as a child and alcoholism as an adult.
“If I can help it a little bit, maybe some kids won’t have to come up like that,” said Gardner.
But from nearly the outset, Gardner’s homes — more than a dozen of which popped up across the Seattle area — received concerning complaints from tenants, social services and police. Residents complained of unsafe living conditions, chaotic management and exorbitant prices to share crowded homes with strangers.
Those who entered Damascus Homes were among the more than 11,700 people in King County who make up the country’s third-largest homeless population, or were in immediate danger of joining the thousands who sleep in shelters, their cars or outdoors every night. Local governments spend millions of dollars trying to solve the problem — Seattle is on track to spend $166.3 million this year alone — but record homelessness has persisted in an affordable housing shortage of crisis-scale.
Companies like Damascus can appear to be a godsend for governments and nonprofits that are trying to house people as quickly as possible. People often came to Damascus because they were sent from social services organizations or heard about it by word of mouth, and the company took in public funds through the financial assistance tenants were given.
Those who got a room seemed to be out of danger from the streets, but there was almost no oversight of living conditions once people moved in.
The Seattle Times spoke to more than 20 current and former Damascus tenants about conditions there, and reviewed police records across 13 Damascus properties in King and Snohomish counties. Tenants described a churn of people with drug-related or mental health issues and sometimes families moving through the homes, and police accounts show that the homes often drew first-responders to reports of conflict or crisis.
Officials in the homelessness system raised red flags, according to emails obtained through public records requests, but in the region’s fragmented response system, Damascus continued to take in vulnerable people.
At a home in SeaTac, Desiree Sellers said she was charged $1,000 for a small upstairs bedroom she shared with her three children, with three beds, including a bunk, sandwiched together. They climbed over one another’s mattresses in order to reach the door.
Sellers said she counted nine adults and six children in the six-bedroom house at that time.
When The Seattle Times visited the home in June 2019, a sink, a row of car seats, a laundry machine and pieces of broken furniture littered the backyard. Sellers said she wouldn’t allow her kids to play in the yard for fear of broken glass. Police had responded to the home twice within the previous two months to handle reports of tenants experiencing mental health crises or making a threat.
“It’s scary because this isn’t just me that I’ve got to worry about,” Sellers said. “I have to think about my children.”
In another home, police recorded reports of mental health crises and fights 10 times in a span of a little over two months.
Over the past four years, Damascus received at least $100,000 in government funds, even as public officials and social service agencies raised concerns about the company’s financial practices and the management of the homes. Because public records don’t capture all expenditures to places like Damascus, the true amount is almost certainly higher.
Gardner’s ability to keep drawing in tenants points to a yawning gap in regulation over housing for people in recovery, as well as the consequence of a deeply confusing homelessness system with multiple funding streams paying for the same services across King County.
Gardner denies that the conditions were as crowded or unsafe as tenants and some police officers reported. He said his attempts to help people were undercut by unscrupulous landlords whom he rented from, social service agencies that wanted him to shut down and house managers who made choices outside of his control.
Gardner denied many of the tenants’ claims and disputed observations from police and social services, saying they didn’t do enough to fully investigate the allegations made about management or conditions in the homes.
“All we did was help 100% of the homeless,” Gardner said in an interview.
Certainly, some residents found stability through Damascus Homes. But many others were left demoralized or homeless — again.
LIVING CONDITIONS CAUSE CONCERNS
Rebecca Graves was recovering from COVID-19 she had contracted while living in a Damascus home last year when she learned she’d have to move.
For Damascus tenants, having to switch homes was common. Damascus didn’t own the homes it rented out. Instead, the company acted as middleman, subleasing from the landlord while renting to its tenants.
Its leasing arrangement meant that when landlords ran into disputes with Damascus, or wanted to sell their homes, Damascus tenants would have to move en masse.
As a result, Damascus hopscotched throughout King and Snohomish counties, where different jurisdictions have varying levels of regulation for group housing and businesses spanning multiple cities are difficult to track.
The pattern of moving homes continued during COVID-19, despite a moratorium that not only banned evictions, but also prohibited landlords from requiring tenants to move from one residence to another.
Last November, the Washington Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to Damascus after receiving two tenants’ complaints during the pandemic.
One tenant claimed he had been locked out of the home after spending a night at the hospital; another said she was given 24 hours’ notice to relocate because the landlord intended to sell the property.
The Attorney General’s Office told Damascus to immediately remedy those complaints. Graves was not one of the tenants mentioned in the Attorney General’s letter, but she and her roommates had already been forced to move four months earlier.
When Graves arrived at the new home Damascus arranged in SeaTac, she was disturbed by what she found: a house that still appeared to be under construction, black trash bags, plywood, Coors Light packaging and a TV piled in front of the house, a sink still being installed in one bathroom and a black bucket under a leaking kitchen sink.
The door to her room, she says, fell off its hinges.
Damascus had a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy, but Graves, who had struggled with drinking and benzodiazepines, said she found a bottle of rum on site. She soon moved out.
“I was just kind of like in a desperate situation,” Graves said.
Tenants faced troubling conditions at other homes managed by Damascus.
An Auburn police officer responded to a complaint in 2017 at a home listed in real estate records as having four bedrooms, and found 10 women housed there, according to his dispatch report. “They live in rooms or in a communal space with curtains dividing the ‘rooms,’” the officer wrote.
Gardner denied that 10 women lived there at the same time, saying his records didn’t show that many people occupying the home simultaneously.
At a call to a different Damascus property in Auburn nearly a year later, another Auburn officer described seven tenants living in nonlocking rooms that appeared to be as small as 6 by 7 feet and sharing a single bathroom. Two didn’t have windows.
“If there were a fire in the hallway they would be trapped in the room with no way to escape,” the officer wrote to a code enforcement officer.
But weeks after Auburn’s code office started investigating, Gardner decided to shut down the home. A similar scenario played out in Renton.
“To call this house a ‘flop house’ would be kind,” one Renton police officer wrote of another Damascus address in a 2019 email to a code compliance colleague. “It appears that there are several different renters occupying numerous rooms.” The officer questioned whether the setup violated the city’s housing code.
By the end of the year, Damascus had moved on.
‘I FELT LIKE I WAS TRAPPED’
As a kid, Gardner said, his two brothers and mother slept in a car in California while he stayed up to keep watch and protect them. He said the experience affected him profoundly.
Later in life, Gardner said, he spent more than four years battling depression and alcoholism, which at times made him “a very violent person” when he drank. His criminal history lists a misdemeanor assault and a felony harassment conviction.
In seeking help, Gardner found a religious community to support him. That’s why, in creating Damascus Homes, Gardner said he wanted to build a space for a Christian recovery community.
For that reason, at Damascus Homes, church was mandatory. Rules of the homes were strict. A 2019 rental agreement read:
“You are not allowed to call names, harass, threaten, rule over, mentally/physically/verbally abuse, manipulate, spread poison, dictate to, or think you are in control or running this house at any time of your stay here. Please notify manager if anyone begins to show or display a controlling behavior(s). (Grounds for immediate dismissal).”
Failure to attend church resulted in letters of admonishment. Also some current and former tenants said text messages from the company could be intimidating. One text in 2019 from the company to tenants read:
“We got rid of 30 people this month for non payment of rent. thanks stupid. Now they have a collection stating rent making it hard to rent some place else. Pay your rent on time all the time. Pay your rent first so you have a place, not a phone bill 1st. Come on people, think please. We want to help.“
But several former Damascus tenants said wildly inconsistent utilities charges and fees made it difficult to make rent.
Graves’ tenant ledger, for example, shows that on top of her $650 rent for a shared room in a house in SeaTac, she was charged $75 late fees and as much as $230 a month for unspecified “overages.”
Gardner said the overage charges reflected unusually high utility bills, which were shared among tenants.
The warnings about her failure to attend church and extra charges frazzled Graves, whose job at a nursing home did not always make ends meet.
“I felt like I was trapped in that situation,” Graves said. “I couldn’t save any money.”
D’hannie Crenshaw, who shared the same home as Graves when she contracted the coronavirus, said she moved there on a referral from a Salvation Army shelter and hoped Damascus Homes would help her navigate the social services system. She said that support never came.
“I just felt bamboozled,” she said.
Crenshaw also said she thought she would be paying $800 a month in rent, inclusive of utilities — just enough to get by on her $1,000 monthly disability check. When Crenshaw realized she also had to pay for utilities, she said she felt stuck and didn’t pay.
The eviction moratorium protected her until June 2020, when the property owner decided to sell the home.
For the second time in a year, Crenshaw ended up in a shelter.
Eddie Sanchez, who owned that SeaTac home with his wife, met Gardner through church and agreed to rent to Damascus because he believed in its mission.
But as rent from Damascus went unpaid, the relationship soured. When the home fell into disrepair, Sanchez said, he decided to sell the property.
“I didn’t have the ledger and I couldn’t keep anyone accountable to the actual payment structures,” Sanchez said.
“I think the intent behind Damascus Homes was great, but management oversight wasn’t detailed enough,” Sanchez said. “And that’s where things fall.”
The cost of rent at Damascus eventually drew the attention of Harborview Medical Center, which referred people participating in a state-funded recovery housing program there.
In January 2019, a Harborview social worker raised concerns similar to Desiree Sellers’ — patients described four people to a bunk room each being charged $900 a month.
“I know it seems drastic and I wish it was different but it is what it is,” a colleague responded in emails.
Recovery housing that offers on-site treatment services requires a state license, but Damascus doesn’t, leaving it exempt.
In 2019, Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, recognized there was a problem.
“It really was very much this sort of Wild West industry with absolutely no regulation,” said Davis, who helped found the nonprofit advocacy group Washington Recovery Alliance. “There were all sorts of issues.”
She helped pass a new law that will require recovery homes to become certified by 2023 in order to get patients referred from behavioral health agencies.
But Damascus could still receive publicly-funded vouchers from other sources — including for people exiting prison — and not have to get certification.
Those sources include short-term rental vouchers from the homeless response system. But there’s little oversight of individual housing providers — not just Damascus — that receive them.
Some human services staffers in King County also bemoaned the regulatory gap. Stacy Hansen, Tukwila’s human services program coordinator, emailed her counterpart in Burien in November 2019 that “the whole boarding house, clean and sober housing and some unethical practices keep me awake at night.”
Colleen Brandt-Schluter, Burien’s human services manager, commiserated.
“While Damascus might have rooms available our case managers had such bad experiences with them we won’t be referring,” Brandt-Schluter wrote. “I agree the clean/sober/boarding houses need some regulation!!”
A FRAGMENTED SYSTEM
In 2018, after Hansen heard that a man the city had helped with rent for a month got kicked out of a Damascus home after a few days, she called the house manager where he stayed. House managers were tenants of Damascus without formal training who oversaw the house in exchange for discounted rent.
The manager “ended up screaming at me and hung up,” Hansen said. She left a message at the main Damascus number, but never heard back.
Hansen determined not to use rental assistance funds for Damascus housing again.
Tukwila was not alone. But the government agencies that received these complaints rarely communicated with each other about them, if at all.
That’s how — even as two cities and one county flagged or halted payments to Damascus Homes — the Washington Department of Corrections was referring people to the company until October, when it cut off funding.
As complaints stacked up, King County officials went back and forth on funding Damascus.
In July 2017, King County flagged concerns with Gardner’s “housing model and business practices” and temporarily halted funding.
Funding resumed after a meeting with Gardner. But a county program manager advised agencies that “a great deal of money has been provided” to Damascus and he warned in an email to “be aware of disproportionate amounts of money going to any one provider.”
King County later heard from one nonprofit contractor that Damascus was being paid from two county programs for the same two tenants’ rent, according to emails. Another nonprofit said tenants were getting kicked out or leaving after using public vouchers.
Gardner said he wasn’t aware that the duplicate payments were against the rules and had refunded the money, and that social service agencies didn’t bother to investigate whether the client complaints were true. Again, King County said it would no longer fund Damascus.
But King County did continue to fund Damascus.
Harborview Medical Center, contracted by the county to provide housing vouchers, had been directing patients toward Damascus as recently as September 2019 — two years after the county supposedly cut Damascus off, records show.
Leo Flor, King County’s director of Community and Human Services, said that he should have caught the continued payments to Damascus earlier on, and should have better communicated the ban to different programs.
“We’ve got a system that is fragmented,” Flor said.
It is so fragmented that after King County decided to cut Damascus off, at least $54,525 flowed from the city of Seattle to Damascus in the last seven months of 2018, records show.
In 2019, a city Human Services grants specialist warned others in his department to keep an eye out for Damascus payments after a nonprofit said “some reports from clients and concerned family members confirmed that they weren’t maintaining their housing in a safe or ethical manner,” according to an email.
Nevertheless, city funds once again found their way to Damascus in February 2020.
FUTURE OF DAMASCUS
After being contacted by The Seattle Times in November 2020, Gardner said that he was preparing to dissolve Damascus Homes LLC.
Over time, Gardner said, it became less and less financially tenable. People wouldn’t pay rent, or wouldn’t pay rent on time, he said.
“We struggled every month for four years to get the rent on time to the landlords,” Gardner said.
It also became difficult to manage homes in which people had serious mental illnesses without more support, Gardner said.
The week before Gardner sat down for an interview in late November, however, Damascus was still actively recruiting for a program called “Damascus Dignity,” which has tenants work jobs in exchange for utilities payments.
In Pioneer Square, people living on the street were handed flyers advertising clean and sober housing. “No money?” they read. “No job? No problem!!!”
Two and a half weeks later, Damascus received a certificate of dissolution from the Washington secretary of state.
Yet as of January 2021, people were still living in what they believed was a property managed by Damascus Homes LLC.
One tenant, who did not want to be named to protect her family’s privacy, received thousands of dollars from the federal CARES Act through King County that paid Damascus for back rent owed during the pandemic.
But in January, she didn’t know that the company had been dissolved. And the money she received didn’t prevent the landlord, who was in a dispute with Damascus over payments, from announcing he was selling the property and that she would have to move.
Four days ago, she prepared to leave for another communal home.
Seattle Times reporter Asia Fields and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.