It’s been nearly a decade since leaders in Bellevue agreed to build a permanent homeless men’s shelter there, and on Monday, the shelter cleared one of its final hurdles.
The Bellevue City Council voted to commit $3.6 million more to the project to fill gaps largely caused by the delay, such the post-pandemic rise in lumber and labor costs, on top of $13.4 million already committed from philanthropy, the state, county and city.
Once the 100-bed shelter is finished in spring 2023 at the earliest, it will be the Eastside’s first permanent, year-round shelter for men.
But the intervening years have been full of controversy, disagreement and rewriting land-use code.
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who committed seven years ago to building the shelter when she was Bellevue’s mayor, said the finish line “feels real now.” Last week, Balducci and her colleagues on the Council voted to sell county property to a nonprofit shelter operator and an affordable housing developer for almost $19 million.
“This feels like it’s really gonna happen, and I could not have said that before this week,” Balducci said. “It’s not to say that we’re done, but it feels like we’re cresting the hill and we’re on our way.”
Leaders from Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland committed to each create one year-round shelter back in 2012. At the time, homeless shelters on the Eastside were seasonal and moved from church to church, making it hard for homeless people to depend on the services. In 2019, a homeless woman died of hypothermia in the alley outside a Kirkland church where a shelter was no longer operating.
Kirkland built a women’s and family shelter, which opened last year. Redmond’s shelter for youth is currently being renovated, so residents are scattered in buildings throughout the city. Bellevue signed up for the men’s shelter, which has proven the hardest to site.
For years, fighting over the location of the shelter filled Bellevue City Council meetings. Neighbors in Eastgate, the wealthy suburban neighborhood which was annexed by Bellevue in 2012, were resistant because the shelter wouldn’t bar men who used alcohol or drugs, and would have been close to a day care, homes and the county’s largest park-and-ride lot. Others said city leaders were abusing city land-use code.
Arguments got so heated that in 2017, people wearing shirts to show their allegiance filled City Hall — red shirts to support the location and purple shirts to show resistance. The shelter was a central issue in City Council elections that year.
But Monday’s meeting was quiet, with no voices of dissent. The entire City Council voted yes on the new shelter and housing expenditures.
“Three and a half years ago, I heard testimony after testimony stating ‘not in my backyard,'” said the Rev. Patty Ebner, pastor at the First Congregational Church of Bellevue, which used to host the men’s shelter when it had to rotate through Eastside churches. “And here we are tonight, the land is chosen, the proposals made.”
Lisa Leitner, who used to live in Eastgate and at times wore a purple shirt, said it wasn’t about “not in my backyard.” The city had never notified Eastgate about its plans, and residents like her were caught off-guard, she said.
“There just didn’t seem to be any structure around this and engagement around this,” Leitner said. “A lot of people at the time — and I’ll say this for myself — didn’t even know there was a homelessness problem in Bellevue.”
But after the political fights calmed and council members turned to writing homeless shelters into the land-use code, the shelter nonprofit, Congregations for the Homeless, began to do more outreach to the neighborhood and helped create an advisory group of local representatives. Leitner became sold on the mission — so much so that she now works for the nonprofit, managing community partnerships.
All that outreach and rewriting land code has taken years, resulting in costly delays. The place Congregations for the Homeless currently uses for shelter is not up to code and so dilapidated it could legally be used only when temperatures made it more dangerous for homeless men to be outside than inside the building. Local businesses raised nearly $1 million in 2018 to renovate it while the shelter waits for a permanent home.
It also resulted in a very strict land-use code for shelters that nonprofit leaders have said makes Bellevue “one of the toughest places to site a shelter,” requiring hundreds of hours of work from thinly staffed nonprofits before a shelter can be built.
But Leitner thinks the time spent was important, because the community is more supportive — even though the location is largely the same as years ago, and now it will share a lot with 92 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people, many more than was proposed in 2016.
“Although the building that we’re in now is literally falling apart, I think the time it has taken to get to this point has brought it to a better point,” Leitner said.
Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson, who has been a supporter of the Eastgate shelter for her entire time on the council, said Bellevue tends to study actions for a long time, but when the council makes a move, “nine out of 10 times they get it right.”
“I wish we could get it right faster, but we have a changing council every two years and can’t always get a majority of people to agree to something,” Robinson said. “And I’m really proud that this week on Monday night we had a strong support from the entire council to move forward with this.”