A permanent shelter is still at least five years out from opening its doors, according to city leaders. But for the first time, they all agree Bellevue needs one year-round.
For the first time in a long time, Bellevue’s City Council agrees on something about homelessness: They need a year-round shelter.
Last week, the council voted to put $135,000 toward exploring the possibility of making a current winter-only shelter in an office park off Interstate 405 into a year-round shelter until a permanent site is picked. That was the first time the council members all formally agreed Bellevue needs a year-round men’s shelter, according to Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak.
But after more than six years of planning, the permanent shelter is still as much as five years out from opening its doors, according to city leaders.
In 2012, trying to build more shelter beds outside of Seattle, Eastside leaders agreed to a plan. Redmond would open a year-round youth shelter; it has. Kirkland would open a women’s and family shelter; it is moving forward, with a location and funding. Bellevue would find a permanent location for a men’s shelter; it hasn’t.
The City Council still doesn’t agree on where the permanent shelter should go. The mayor and some on the council pushed last year to put it in the Eastgate area on a site owned by King County, but many neighbors rose up and flooded City Council meetings, upset about the prospect of 100 homeless men nearby. Many felt they hadn’t been included in the decision; others were worried a permanent shelter would bring Seattle’s homelessness struggles to Bellevue.
Councilmember Jared Nieuwenhuis, who ran as an outspoken critic of the Eastgate location, said the city should have stopped to ask the neighborhoods.
“They kind of sidestepped the neighborhoods and sidestepped residents and their input,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Part of the conflict, said David Bowling, is because people are afraid of homeless men. Bowling is executive director of Congregations for the Homeless (CFH), the faith-based organization that would run the shelter, and the first question people typically ask him is, “Will there be sex offenders?”
During last year’s Bellevue City Council elections, the shelter was a hot topic, and the outcome seemed good for people who wanted it at Eastgate. Candidates who supported that location seemed to be in the majority.
But the city then spent five months taking themselves out of the business of siting permanent shelters, as they amended the land use code and handed down more requirements to open one.
Karina O’Malley, a community activist in Kirkland who’s been instrumental in getting the ball rolling on the women’s and family shelter, can’t believe Bellevue has taken so long.
“They took what feels like years to do [an amendment] they didn’t need and have arrived to somewhere before the point where they started,” O’Malley said. “It’s really kind of startling.”
This leaves Congregations for the Homeless with several hoops to jump through. Under Bellevue’s new rules, they must host a community meeting before applying for the permit, sign a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with the city, and set up an advisory board of businesses, neighbors and parents of kids who go to school nearby. Bowling called the new rules “onerous,” but workable.
“Concessions were made that I wish weren’t on there,” Bowling said. “What heartens me was within a couple of weeks of that passing, was the council came together and said, ‘Let’s do what we can to make sure that we get a year-round shelter before then.’ ”
Bowling’s group currently runs the winter shelter for homeless men at an office building built in 1968, next to a Chick-fil-A and an auto dealership. It’s not up to code. During the winter, the city can waive code requirements if it’s more dangerous to be outside than inside, but once temperatures rise, CFH has to kick everyone out and let many on staff go, hoping to rehire them in the fall, said Josh Terlouw, director of programs at CFH.
“Every May when we kick people out and tell them they’ve got to find shelter somewhere else, it’s not a fun thing,” Terlouw said.
A preliminary study of the winter shelter building found it could cost close to $2 million to bring it up to code, and the earliest that could be done is 2020, because of the public bidding process and issues with asbestos in the building, according to Chelminiak, the Bellevue mayor. Members of the council and Bowling hope the $135,000 feasibility study will reveal some cheaper, quicker options, because no one seems eager to spend nearly $2 million on a shelter that will only be open for a few years.
The council will review the cost estimates early next year. Chelminiak acknowledges it’s taking a long time, but says he has to remain optimistic.
“I think all seven members of the council realize the emergency situation that we’re in, and I think they understand we’ve really got to push this forward,” Chelminiak said.