With 171 years of life experience between them, including about 80 managing hospitals and rocket systems, Ruth Benfield and John Pehrson have seen a thing or two.
Benfield was a vice president at Seattle Children’s hospital, overseeing that facility’s master development plan. Pehrson was the program manager of missiles and spacecraft at Boeing’s Kent Space Center.
So when the two retirees, now neighbors, put their heads together on a homelessness aid project in their South Lake Union neighborhood, they figured: How impossible of a task can this be?
“We’ve navigated a lot of bureaucracy in our day,” says Pehrson, 95. “This system is something else.”
Their odyssey started more than a year ago, when some of the 400-plus residents at Seattle’s Mirabella retirement center suggested they all pool their resources to help out with the city’s homelessness crisis.
The pitch they hit on was unique, the opposite of “not in my backyard.” They told the city: If you put a homeless shelter next to us, we’ll raise the money to help pay for it.
With the encouragement of multiple Seattle city council members, they raised $143,000 from Mirabella residents in about four weeks, and another $100,000 was pledged by a South Lake Union developer. That was enough for about half the capital startup costs for a temporary emergency site, a 40-unit tiny house village, which was proposed about a block from the Mirabella at a leftover City Light lot that has sat mostly vacant for years.
“We’re old and have a lot of time on our hands, so we could cook meals for them and make lunches and do clothing drives,” Pehrson said. “It would be right down the block. So people here were very excited about finally being able to do something to help.”
The rest of the money needed was just sitting there — in the form of $2 million in grants the state had already given Seattle, earmarked for “tiny houses and cottages.”
But maddeningly it stayed sitting there, unspent, all last year. It’s the same money that’s now the subject of dispute and intrigue, having been transferred by the city in January to a new regional homelessness agency, where it was awarded to other aid projects, only to be pulled back by an edict from Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.
It isn’t clear what’s going to happen with those grants now, or when they may be spent. The city says it wants to move on though and use the abandoned lot near the Mirabella for other City Light work. So unless a new spot is found, the $143,000 these volunteers raised will be returned, donation by donation, back to Mirabella’s residents.
All this in the middle of a declared homelessness emergency.
“Most of 2021 and now the first part of 2022 has been wasted,” Pehrson said. “I know what it’s like to have an emergency at work — we’d have a stand-up meeting about it every day. I mean everybody would be standing. They’re not acting like this is a crisis.”
Says Benfield, 76: “We could have already sheltered people all through last winter. We’re not experts, so we had only two questions: ‘How do we get this done? How do we help?’ The city slow-walked their response until it all went nowhere.”
The city says it didn’t award the grants last year because it was winding down its homelessness work to turn it over to a new Regional Homelessness Authority. Ironically that group was set up in part to remove parochial politics from the equation. It’s now mired in even thicker politics with Seattle lawmaker Chopp.
As reported by The Seattle Times’ Scott Greenstone, Chopp big-footed the $2 million in grants back to Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute — a nonprofit he co-founded — which manages the city’s tiny house villages, and would also have managed the proposed one near the Mirabella.
But the regional group, which is now in charge, clearly does not favor tiny house villages as a shelter strategy. Also they said they hoped to “diversify” by including other nonprofits.
The Mirabella folks are like a benevolent ladybug that flew into a spiderweb.
“I see people working very hard at not solving the problem,” Benfield says. “The government agencies, the nonprofits, the politicians are caught up in power struggles. We sat in meeting after meeting where they were expending a lot of energy, but it was on maneuvering. They’ve lost sight of the goal.”
That goal is supposed to be helping people get up and off the streets. There are disagreements about how best to do that, which hopefully this new regional group will resolve. But c’mon, we’re more than six years into this emergency.
The city, the regional group and the nonprofits all say it’s a top priority to put a new shelter of some type in South Lake Union. Yet as of now there isn’t one planned. Despite this unprecedented volunteer push from the Mirabella residents.
Says Pehrson: “We set out to get an education and we got one.”
An honorary degree, in Seattle Process.