John Pehrson called the other day with some bad news. Bad in more ways than one.
“We’re giving up,” the former rocket scientist said, marking a first for him with that phrase.
Pehrson had co-led a group of volunteer retirees who, for the past year, had raised $143,000 for a homelessness aid project in their South Lake Union neighborhood.
But due to a spider web of mixed signals and finger-pointing, foot-dragging bureaucracies, the project – a 40-home tiny house village – is “obviously not going to happen,” Pehrson says.
“We can’t dribble on forever like the city,” he said.
The charitable foundation for the Mirabella retirement center, where the money was raised, has decided to end the volunteers’ involvement and return all the donations.
“We were not able to execute on what we asked everyone to donate to, so we’re obligated to give the money back,” said Pehrson, a former manager at Boeing’s Kent Space Center. “It’s terribly frustrating. No homeless people got helped.”
The office of Mayor Bruce Harrell had pledged to look for a site in South Lake Union, after the first one, a City Light property, had fallen through. But Pehrson said “they never got back to us, and with the politics around tiny home villages right now, we could see the writing on the wall.”
He was referring to my column this past weekend on how there’s a brand-new tiny house village sitting empty and unused in Rainier Beach, due to squabbling among the nonprofit that built it, the city and the new Regional Homelessness Authority (who rejected funding for both the Rainier Beach and Mirabella projects).
Though the CEO of the authority, Marc Dones, said the RHA has no ax to grind with tiny homes as shelter, Anne Martens, the RHA’s senior director of external affairs and communications, wrote to me over the weekend calling them “shantytowns.”
“New York has a multibillion dollar shelter industry because they invested in shelter but not in housing,” she wrote, about why the RHA didn’t fund the Rainier Beach or Mirabella proposals. “I don’t think scaling up shantytowns is the answer.”
The tiny house village I visited at Rainier Beach has heat and power. Supervision and case counselors are available for its residents. There are beds with linen, a laundry, and bathrooms with shower facilities. Even a kitchen with free meals and 24/7 security.
My interest in these villages was because I saw firsthand how people who may reject other forms of emergency shelter will often be amenable to moving into a tiny house.
The ultimate goal has to be permanent housing, as Martens says. But as a step for helping people out of the worst conditions, tiny homes seem to work, according to a new, two-year study of them at Portland State University.
All that said, if tiny homes are now on the out in Seattle, then: What’s in? If we’re going to nix this option, we need something in its place.
But neither the city nor the RHA is rapidly standing up some other type of transitional shelter. Mayor Harrell pledged during his campaign to add 1,000 new shelter units in the first six months of this year. So far, according to the City Council’s homelessness committee, the number added has been zero.
Without transitional shelter, it means, by default, that we’re choosing to leave people on the streets and under bridges during the many, many years it will take to build apartment buildings.
Jenny Cummins, who helps Epiphany Church in Seattle with volunteer efforts, said there’s great confusion right now on what leaders even want.
“We have money and people hours to donate, but people lose heart if in the end they get blocked,” she said. “If it’s not this, then what is the plan instead? Tell us and we’ll do that.”
Example: Volunteers continue to gather most days in a warehouse in SODO to churn out more tiny houses. Somebody up the chain should let them know if those efforts are going to prove fruitless.
Pehrson said he’s worried that in this leadership vacuum, fatalism may set in.
“When people see failure like this, they may be less likely to jump up and try to help in the future,” he said.
He’s talking about a concept called “doomism.” The feeling that a problem is so intractable or unworkable, people no longer see a point in trying.
My own view has usually veered closer to doomism’s unhelpful opposite, “hopeium.” That’s unfounded optimism – a sense that it can’t possibly be this difficult for Seattle to house people.
Clear-eyed, forthright, coordinated leadership on this issue of our time is what is desperately needed. But I’m feeling like calling for that may be just another act of hopeium.