In Bellevue, a men’s shelter has become a wedge issue in a City Council election. Homelessness, and cities’ responses to it, has also become a prominent issue in local elections in Auburn, Everett and Skagit County.
For the last year, Bellevue City Council hearings have been colorful and sometimes unruly spectacles — citizens talking back to City Council members, breaking rules of order, opponents of an issue wearing purple, supporters wearing red.
The issue animating Bellevue politics is a proposed 100-bed emergency homeless shelter — the first permanent men’s shelter on the Eastside — in the Eastgate neighborhood.
“It’s divided our city,” Eastgate resident Lara Litov said. “Neighbors against neighbors.”
The issue that has disrupted City Council meetings has also become a defining part of City Council candidates’ campaigns.
Four of seven nonpartisan seats will be decided in November, and two of those — including the swing vote on the shelter issue — have no incumbents running. The council that Bellevue votes to elect in November will, most likely, decide on the location.
Since Litov and her husband, Tzachi, learned of the city’s plans to build the shelter near their home, the couple have been regulars at City Hall on Monday nights.
Some of the Litovs’ neighbors — those they joined in campaigning for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last year or who participated in dealing with events like the huge Hanukkah Eve windstorm a decade ago — no longer look them in the eye.
“The moment this shelter thing came up, lines were drawn,” Tzachi Litov said. “Our neighbors do not talk to us.”
Across the state
Bellevue is not alone. In cities across Washington state, where the number of people living outdoors jumped 10 percent in 2016 to over 9,300, homelessness has become a major issue in November’s elections.
In Skagit County, candidate forums have focused on housing and homelessness, the Skagit County Herald reports. In Everett, where all four primary mayoral candidates agreed the city shoulders too much of the homelessness problem, an auto-shop owner announced his own write-in bid after putting up a sign that read, ‘Welcome to Tweakerville’ at his downtown business.
In Auburn, Mayor Nancy Backus is being challenged by her own deputy mayor and one-time supporter, Largo Wales, who now blames Backus for tolerating homeless people “roaming” downtown.
“Crime is on the increase, and homelessness is unchecked,” Wales said at a mayoral debate in September.
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In affluent Bellevue, a temporary homeless shelter has moved from church to church, month to month, for years. Ten years ago, after a homeless man froze to death on Christmas night, the city began running a winter shelter. In 2012, the three major Eastside cities, including Kirkland and Redmond, agreed to address the increasing numbers of homeless people by adding year-round shelters.
The community protest has been loudest in Bellevue.
“This is an election issue. This passes, you’re out,” one person wrote the Bellevue City Council after a forum last year that drew 170 residents.
Some opponents, like the Litovs, say they want a homeless shelter in Bellevue as much as the supporters. They just don’t like the location, which is near some homes, a park-and-ride lot, Bellevue College, a day-care center and elementary schools. They also don’t like the idea that the shelter will be “low barrier,” meaning staff won’t turn anyone away.
Other responses are more blunt.
“Bellevue is going to be a magnet for problems,” read one comment from the forum. Others worried about “strange men” coming to Bellevue. One person suggested setting the shelter in a boat and pushing the boat into Lake Washington at night.
All the City Council candidates live within 3 miles of the proposed shelter, and some of them are channeling community anger into their campaigns.
Jared Nieuwenhuis, a marketing director for a video-game developer in Bellevue, was preparing to announce his candidacy when he spoke at a City Council meeting April 3. He urged the city to put the shelter not at Eastgate, but in an industrial area near a planned Sound Transit light-rail station in the Bel-Red neighborhood.
Alternate site suggested
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Two days later, Nieuwenhuis formally announced his bid to replace retiring council member Kevin Wallace. Wallace endorsed Nieuwenhuis and said the two came up with the alternate shelter location.
Claudia Balducci, former Bellevue mayor who is now a Metropolitan King County Council member representing the city, thinks the location wouldn’t be so divisive if candidates hadn’t seized on it.
“It’s being raised as a stalking horse for candidates,” Balducci said. “Any time we say ‘Let’s not put it here, let’s put it over there’ … the people there say ‘Let’s not put it here.’ I’m afraid we’re going to kick off a game of whack-a-mole.”
Most of the Bel-Red site that Wallace proposed is owned by Sound Transit, which said it “has no interest” in changing its plans to add a homeless shelter. There is less transit access at the Bel-Red site than at the city’s proposed Eastgate site, and there are homes planned within 100 feet of the Bel-Red site.
Nieuwenhuis says it’s not about his backyard; he threw himself into this issue because he’s passionate about the homeless. He had served on the board of directors for The Sophia Way, a shelter for homeless women in Bellevue, but is no longer a member.
“I want to find a neighborhood where this is going to be embraced,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Goal called unrealistic
Karol Brown, an immigration lawyer running against Nieuwenhuis, said finding a site everyone agrees about is unrealistic, and will slow the city’s response to the homelessness crisis.
“There is nowhere to put a shelter that isn’t near people,” Brown said from her office, which overlooks the Eastgate site.
The shelter is the only issue Steve Fricke, assistant general counsel for Microsoft who is running for Position 6, addresses by name on his website’s front page. Fricke made it a major part of his platform because it’s a concern of so many in the community, he said.
David Bowling, executive director of Congregations for the Homeless (CFH) — the nonprofit started by an alliance of Bellevue churches that will run the shelter — is used to resistance like this. It sites several temporary shelters a year and neighborhoods routinely protest. This level of resistance is new, though.
“The community has had a lot of time to organize against this,” Bowling said. “(But) every time, the fears die down once people realize their fears aren’t coming true.”
But there’s one thing all the candidates seem to agree on: The way the city decides on appropriate shelter sites could be improved. This is the first time the city has tried to site a permanent shelter, and council candidates said Bellevue could have been more transparent early in the process.
“Whether it’s in your neighborhood or my neighborhood or somebody else’s, it has to be done right,” Bellevue Mayor John Stokes said at a recent council meeting.
Wherever the shelter is sited — or if it gets built at all — the civic debate about homelessness likely won’t end in Bellevue soon: Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people sleeping outside on the Eastside more than doubled.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Jared Nieuwenhuis currently serves on the board of directors of The Sophia Way. He had served but is no longer a member. The colors worn by supporters and opponents of the shelter were also misidentified.