Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, is retiring after 31 years with the nonprofit agency.
Bill Hobson wants to set the record straight.
In three decades as one of the strongest allies for Seattle’s homeless population, Hobson has been quoted in hundreds of news reports.
But he takes exception to a 2006 article in which a writer cited Hobson’s “Southern twang.”
“I don’t have a ‘twang,’ ” the Texas native said flatly. “I have a drawl.”
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Be it twang or drawl, Lone Star State roots are a fundamental part of Hobson’s identity. The online invitation to his upcoming retirement fete notes “casual attire recommended, cowboy boots appreciated.”
But along the way, Hobson also has become an authentic part of Seattle, starting work at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in 1984 and becoming its executive director in 1988.
“I have eaten, slept, lived and breathed homelessness for 31 years,” Hobson said. It’s not a complaint, but an explanation of why, at 75, he’s ready to step aside.
Admirers say Hobson’s willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, break down stereotypes and pioneer new approaches to helping the homeless have been the hallmarks of DESC’s success.
“I can’t think of anyone who is a more eloquent or a more courageous advocate for the homeless,” said Peter Aberg, board member of the Municipal League of King County, which in April named Hobson its “Citizen of the Year.”
Aberg, a former DESC board member, said Hobson’s award acknowledges not just a year but a career of accomplishment. It’s one of many kudos that have come Hobson’s way.
The essence of DESC’s approach has been the now well-recognized concept of “Housing First,” meaning that getting someone into stable housing is an important first step toward dealing with any other difficulties they have.
One of the agency’s most closely watched experiments is the four-story “wet” apartment building at 1811 Eastlake, opened in 2005. There, 75 men and women with chronic alcohol dependency are allowed to continue drinking in their rooms, and they have access to optional treatment.
The project was built despite a legal challenge by nearby businesses, and criticism from many sources, including a Seattle Times editorial that said, “If government is going to build housing for 75 alcoholics, at least it should insist they quit drinking in order to live there.”
Three years into the program, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated the risk was paying off: Residents had reduced their alcohol consumption by about third. In addition, the cost of housing them at the site was far less, on average, than in the places they had previously been, such as jail, detox centers and hospital-based medical programs.
When DESC was founded, five years before Hobson’s arrival, it operated a single overnight shelter, the Morrison Hotel, with room for about 250 adults.
Today, it operates 10 residential programs housing 1,100 people, accommodates an additional 275 each night in emergency shelters and helps hundreds more with a variety of clinical services. In the course of a year, it will help some 7,000 people.
DESC’s successes with “Housing First” projects have been presented in conferences drawing representatives not just from around the United States, but Europe, Canada and Australia.
Numbers tell the agency’s growth: In Hobson’s time with DESC, it has grown from 19 employees with a budget of $425,000 to 514 employees and a $33 million budget.
But not all the numbers are positive: An overnight count of King County homeless in January tallied 3,772 people on the street, 21 percent more than last year, frustrating officials who a decade ago adopted a 10-year goal of eliminating homelessness.
Any realistic attempt to minimize homelessness, Hobson said, would require massive investment in creating housing, something government does not appear to have the money and resolve to tackle, he said.
Working with the homeless is Hobson’s second career. He holds a doctorate in political science and was chair of the department of political science at the University of Puget Sound until he did “a silly thing” in 1980.
Partly in reaction to the pain of a divorce, he quit his teaching job and traveled to Nicaragua, staying about a year learning about attempted agrarian reform and social revolution.
In 1984, after a couple of years back in the U.S. … he took an entry-level shelter counselor job with DESC.
Early on, Hobson said, it became clear that a lack of stable housing aggravates any number of human difficulties: mental illness, addiction, developmental disorders and more.
“The homeless were the most dispossessed, kicked-to-the-curb group of people I had ever encountered in my life,” and helping them could benefit society on many fronts, he decided.
Clark Kimerer, a retired assistant Seattle police chief, counts Hobson as a friend and hero. He remembers times in the ’90s when Hobson helped defuse clashes over the issue of homelessness, such as during occupation of buildings by homeless advocates.
Hobson’s strength, Kimerer said, has been continually looking for the common ground among disparate parties — activists, law-enforcement, businesses, residents and the homeless themselves.
“He’s a deft negotiator and a thinker,” said Kimerer, a former DESC board president. “He will present the interest of the homeless with incredible passion, but with incredible smarts, too.”
King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen dates her connection with Hobson back to his first career, when she took a UPS college course on “Marxist thought” from him.
Decades later, as a judge presiding over drug-court cases, she became aware of some of the case-management and substance-abuse services DESC provided. When she rotated off the drug calendar, she became a DESC board member.
Siting facilities to help the homeless is seldom easy, and it means dealing with a neighborhood’s fears and prejudices.
Inveen said Hobson’s strength is that he works to understand, not dismiss or ignore, the concerns of residents and business owners.
“He’s plain-spoken and very accessible … He certainly doesn’t talk down to people,” Inveen said. “He tries to understand from where they’re coming.”
Before the 50-unit apartment building Rainier House opened in 2009 for people with persistent mental illness, Hobson attended numerous meeting, including some pizza sessions at people’s homes, to hear their concerns, Inveen said.
Most of Hobson’s top staffers are themselves longtime DESC employees. Deputy Director Daniel Malone, who will succeed Hobson, has been with the agency 26 years.
A question that remains, as Hobson rides into the sunset, is whether someone who cares so passionately about an issue can stay on the sidelines. Hobson himself isn’t sure whether he might reappear in a different role.
But at least for three months, he said, he wants to enjoy activities he has had little time for, including fly-fishing, a pastime he learned from his father, and one in which his 17-year-old adopted daughter has recently shown an interest.
Among his other plans are bicycle rides, including a 50-mile ride around Lake Washington in August, and simply spending time in his favorite chair with a glass of single-malt scotch.