As spring approaches each year, employees at the Eastside’s only men’s shelter begin reminding the homeless men staying there that the shelter will close May 1. The shelter in Bellevue’s Lincoln Center is not up to code, so it can only be used when it is more dangerous to stay outside its walls (the winter) than inside.
But if things go as planned, the shelter won’t close next spring, or in years to come.
A team of Bellevue architects, civil engineers and builders worked together, pro bono, to design a renovation of the shelter to bring it up to code; as of last week, they had raised $750,000 for the construction costs. That should keep the building open year-round until the shelter moves into a permanent, new building.
The news, announced Thursday at a special Bellevue City Council meeting, offered a moment of unity around homelessness in a city that hasn’t had much of that in the last few years. The council on Thursday was full of laughter as business leaders and politicians celebrated.
Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak laid the responsibility for the shelter’s expansion at the feet of former Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace, who he has disagreed with regularly in the past over shelter issues.
“This actually led to more people in the business community actually taking an interest and an investment in our homelessness issue,” said Chelminiak. “And honestly, that was lacking — it was not something that was on the minds of the business community, and Kevin (Wallace) has done a fabulous job with that.”
In 2012, in an effort to build more shelter beds outside of Seattle, Eastside leaders agreed to split up shelter for the homeless population: Redmond would open a year-round youth shelter, Kirkland would open a women’s and family shelter, and Bellevue would open a men’s shelter.
Bellevue’s task has been the hardest. The mayor and city council members pushed in 2017 for an Eastgate neighborhood site on land owned by King County. But some neighbors disagreed, filling city council meetings with complaints about the prospect of 100 homeless men nearby. Some felt they hadn’t been included in the decision; others worried a permanent shelter would bring Seattle’s homelessness to Bellevue.
Now, the nonprofit that runs the shelter — Congregations for the Homeless (CFH) — is pursuing another site close by, but it won’t be ready for several years. More than 900 people were counted as homeless on the Eastside in this year’s snapshot count.
The city planned to fix up the current spot, Lincoln Center, so it could serve as a year-round shelter in the meantime, but a preliminary study found it could cost close to $2 million, and the earliest that could be done is 2020, in part because of asbestos in the building.
That’s when Wallace, a real estate developer who left the city council in the heat of the shelter debate, started bringing people together.
“I didn’t want to have the men just kicked out in to the cold again, ever,” Wallace said.
Architects from MG2 and civil engineers from DCI Engineers in Seattle put together a quicker plan for free, and Bellevue construction company RAFN covered construction costs.
That left $750,000 for fire sprinkler work, which Wallace, some former politicians, members of the business community and Congregations for the Homeless started fundraising for in April. Microsoft and Puget Sound Energy were among the 84 donors who put in up to $100,000 each.
For David Bowling, the executive director of Congregations for the Homeless who has been advocating for a year-round shelter for years, it was a turning point.
“I was surprised that anybody came forward to champion this outside of the nonprofit community,” Bowling said. “If a man falls into homelessness, starting September 1st, he will have year round access to shelter. Today, if someone falls into homelessness on the Eastside, they have to live in camps and in our woods.”
Even though the Lincoln Center building will get renovated, it is still near the end of it’s life, giving the city a three-year window to build the permanent shelter, which CFH is planning to put on county land in Eastgate.
On Monday, Bellevue City Council will vote on the money to expand CFH’s operations all year round.
“I just think that it’s an important day,” Chelminiak said. “Bellevue said it was going to do this, and we’re doing it. It took us longer than we thought it was going to, but we’re doing it.”