There’s no better symbol of the bureaucratic dysfunction on homelessness than the one currently sitting in plain view, across from the Rainier Beach light-rail station in Seattle.
It’s a cluster of 40 blue and green tiny houses, each wired for heat and light and brand new, built along tidy gravel paths. There’s an industrial kitchen, showers and a laundry. It’s a full-service emergency shelter, with case counselors at the ready provided by the Refugee Women’s Alliance.
All it lacks is the main thing it was built for: homeless people.
The shelter has been sitting empty for weeks now while hundreds in Seattle’s south end sleep on the streets because … well, because our leaders are squabbling like teenagers?
Honestly that’s the best explanation I can come up with for this latest fiasco.
“It’s a bit of a feud,” one advocate not involved in the project testified to the Regional Homelessness Authority last week. “None of us can afford household fights, and I think that’s what this is.”
The fact that Seattle has a shelter going unused was first brought to light by former Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. She’s been volunteering to build the 8-by-12-foot tiny houses. She wrote to a slew of city and county leaders last week that we’ve had an entire village of them sitting empty since late March, during which time people have died living in greenbelts and under bridges.
“It’s unopened because operating funding hasn’t been forthcoming,” she wrote. “This is a waste.”
What happened is that the Low Income Housing Institute built the village because the city had at one time pledged to fund it, and the City Council was supportive. But then control switched from the city to the new Regional Homelessness Authority. Last month, that group denied operating funding to the project.
It did this though construction was nearly finished at the time.
“It makes no sense to us, and it’s never been explained, why they would turn down a shelter that’s one hundred percent built and ready to go,” says Sharon Lee, LIHI’s executive director.
At a recent meeting of the regional authority, some hinted there was bad blood, and a power struggle, between the authority and Lee.
“We shouldn’t allow agencies to dictate how we operate,” said Harold Odom, co-chair of an RHA committee, referring to LIHI. He lives in a tiny house village and accused LIHI of “complaining” excessively and being misleading.
“Before people can ask for more money, make sure they can do what they’re saying on paper first,” Odom said. “And that’s personal.”
The CEO of the regional authority, Marc Dones, denied the agency’s got any ax to grind, at least not with tiny homes as shelter.
“If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on, like, day three,” Dones said. “Like, they’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation, right?”
See what I mean about squabbling like teenagers?
It’s true that Sharon Lee can be a pit bull in a town full of poodles. Here’s how this newspaper described her back in 1997 when she was in a showdown with business interests over a homeless hygiene facility downtown:
“To meet Lee is to have strong opinions about her. She is variously portrayed as brilliant, passionate, charming, disagreeable and deceitful. Everyone agrees she is steadfast. One person likened her to Jason, the ghoul who won’t die in the ‘Friday the 13th’ movies.”
Right, but guess who eventually got the hygiene facilities built — and is still operating them today?
Since that story, LIHI has also gone on to build more than 4,000 units of affordable apartments and shelter. That makes Lee one of the bigger developers of housing of any kind in the region.
“They just do more than anybody else,” says state Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, who did a power play himself recently when he took $2 million in grants from the RHA and earmarked it for LIHI — a group he helped start 30 years ago. “They house more people. Does that come with rough edges? Yes, but so be it.”
“I think what we have here is a clashing of very strong personalities,” says George Scarola, who was the city’s homelessness director in 2015, and is now a sometime advisor to LIHI. “The City Council, the mayor, the RHA, LIHI, the other nonprofits — we all get in our own way sometimes.”
OK, back to homelessness (that’s the human crisis this story is supposed to be about, remember?)
South End Village, sitting empty, needs about $700,000 to run for the rest of the year. That would cover security, utilities, staffing the kitchen and some case services. LIHI can’t tap the $2 million from Chopp because that’s restricted to capital spending, not operations.
Lee says she’s now going to try to open the shelter anyway, in May, using solely private donations. Scarola says it’s risky to open a shelter without a government partner. So far, none has stepped up.
On a recent visit, I was told the village has staff onsite 24/7, even though it’s empty. Why, I asked?
The answer was that people are so in need of places to sleep that some would likely break in and move into the tiny houses as squatters.
What a Kafkaesque turn. We’re six years into our homelessness “emergency.” And due to egos and fiefdom feuds, here’s a shelter, empty, that’s being guarded not to protect the homeless people it was built to serve.
It’s being guarded to keep them out.