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Seattle takes different tacks to address homelessness problem

Dan Nakaso
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John Hord, 50, has resided at the Nickelsville homeless camp in Seattle since March, and helps out the project by serving as head of security to help maintain a sense of order. “It’s a place where 40 homeless people are trying to rebuild their lives,” he said.
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116 Stewart St. is another Plymouth Housing Group project aimed at helping keep the homeless off of the street.
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The homeless living in Nickelsville must have valid identification. Their names are also checked against a database of sex offenders.
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Chrystina Atkeson and her boyfriend, Tu Hoang (not pictured), moved into Nickelsville on Sunday to escape the rigors of street life. At right is John Hord, another Nickelsville resident.
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Kelli Larsen, director of strategic initiatives for the Plymouth Housing Group, helps people struggling to get off the streets by finding them homes like this one at Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartments at 1921 3rd Ave. in Seattle.
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Kelli Larsen, director of strategic initiatives for Plymouth Housing Group, stands in front of portraits of past and present tenants at the Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartments. “It really is so simple,” she said. “You house people first and they will begin the process toward recovery.”
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The Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartments building in downtown Seattle is one of many Plymouth Housing Group projects aimed at helping keep the homeless off of the street.

SEATTLE » The Emerald City is taking multiple routes in its search for solutions to its homeless problem.

Seattle is simultaneously having nonprofit groups run multimillion-dollar high-rises that are available only to the homeless; planning city-sanctioned tent cities; and encouraging private landlords to rent apartments to people addicted to alcohol and drugs.


Honolulu Star-Advertiser writer Dan Nakaso is on a two-week assignment to Seattle, San Francisco and Salt Lake City to examine what those cities are doing to tackle homelessness. This is the first of his three reports.


Seattle churches allow tent cities on their properties and Seattle’s mayor is planning to allow tent cities on public land to get more people off of the streets. Despite Seattle’s high housing and land costs, landlords also continue to accept housing vouchers to rent to homeless people even though they may be addicted to drugs and alcohol.

There are still plenty of homeless people living on the streets, but nonprofit groups and federal officials say Seattle’s projects and programs offer examples of what Hawaii’s efforts to address island homelessness could look like.

“Seattle has very similar issues to Hawaii: a very, very expensive housing market, a low vacancy rate and a significant number of people sleeping outside,” said Katy Miller, Seattle-based regional coordinator of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who visited Honolulu last month with the agency’s executive director.

But Seattle nonprofit organizations, Miller said, have proved that it’s more expensive to have homeless people on the street costing millions of dollars more in medical and law enforcement efforts than it would cost to build or renovate homes to house them, including the expense of in-house medical and social services.

Even with Honolulu’s high-priced housing market, Miller said, it’s more cost-effective to build so-called “Housing First” projects like the ones in some of Seattle’s most expensive areas than it is to have people on the streets.

The Housing First concept blows up an old model requiring anyone homeless and addicted to drugs or alcohol to kick those habits before they could be placed in a home — an approach that has largely failed. Today, Miller and others say, it’s much cheaper and more effective to get homeless alcoholics and drug users into homes, where they can then deal with their problems through so-called “wraparound” social services.

“It really is so simple,” said Kelli Larsen, director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit Plymouth Housing Group, which has built or renovated 13 Housing First projects across Seattle. “You house people first and they will begin the process toward recovery.”

Plymouth operates several high-rises for formerly homeless tenants around Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market tourist attraction, including the Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartments on Third Avenue.

The five-story building sits next to a glass-and-steel luxury high-rise where units can cost up to $1 million, Larsen said.

Emergency room and jail costs for a “chronically homeless” person can climb up to $100,000 every year, Larsen said. But the same person can cost about $14,000 a year in a Plymouth Housing First project, she said.

For each project, Plymouth has spent up to $20 million constructing its buildings and up to another $1 million in annual operating costs, much of which is reimbursed by the federal government.

The tenants pay 30 percent of their monthly rent, often from their Social Security benefits, and local and federal money that otherwise would go to jail and medical expenses make up much of the balance.

At the Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartments, people 55 and older live in 92 studio apartments that offer full kitchens and bathrooms, communal indoor and outdoor areas, and a garden filled with tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers tended by residents.

Dignified black-and-white portraits of the residents line the walls of the indoor meeting area, which includes an upright piano.

“It’s hard to paint broad generalizations of the homeless because everyone has a story,” Larsen said. “So we want to tell the stories of the folks who live here.”

There are nurses and social service case managers on duty, and the building’s locked entrance is supervised 24 hours a day.

“We always talk about the cost savings,” Larsen said. “We’ve made it work.”

Plymouth is one of the largest nonprofits running Housing First buildings in Seattle. And Miller said, “If we could get just one of those in Honolulu, it would create a lot more housing options. It does work and it is cost-effective.”

“It’s a community here. It’s way better than being on the street.”

Chrystina Atkeson
She and her boyfriend, Tu Hoang, moved into Nickelsville September 13 on Sunday to escape the rigors of street life.

ON THE OTHER end of the spectrum, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray in June proposed three tent cities on three city sites that each would accommodate no more than 100 homeless people.

Murray said in a statement that the tent cities — he calls them “permitted encampment sites” — would address “our worst housing affordability crisis in decades.”

The mayor has proposed another four tent cities that, after the first three go up, could accommodate a total of another 227 of Seattle’s homeless.

“Permitted encampments are not a permanent solution to the crisis of homelessness we are experiencing in Seattle,” Murray said in June. “These encampments will provide a safer community environment than sleeping under a highway overpass or on a park bench.”

The Seattle mayor’s idea is similar to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s plan to build, beginning next month, a homeless shelter on Sand Island out of shipping containers. Like Seattle’s tent cities, the Sand Island Hale Mauliola project would provide security and on-site social services.

In Seattle the tent cities will be operated by two organizations that already run other tent cities: SHARE and Nickelsville. Both organizations serve as examples of how encampments operate on private, government and church-owned land in Seattle.

The Nickelsville tent city sits on a private hillside that offers a spectacular view of Safeco Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners pro sports teams. The crowd noise from each touchdown and home run can be heard miles away by those in the encampment.

Nickelsville houses 13 “tiny homes” built by Boy Scouts, Home Depot and community organizations. For zoning purposes, each house has to be smaller than 120 square feet.

Another 35 wooden platforms provide foundations for tents. There is no running water or electricity, but residents use donated portable toilets on the property.

The community of 40 or so homeless people who live in Nickelsville decide everything. Rules include mandatory group meetings, curfews and bans on alcohol, drugs and violence.

Everyone is required to staff security shifts to monitor Nickelsville 24 hours a day, said John Hord, 50, who was recently elected head of security and lives in a one-room house near the gated entrance.

There’s even a ban on walking across Dearborn Street directly in front of Nickelsville, where the only thing on the other side of the busy road is a tree-shrouded, notorious homeless encampment called “The Jungle” which is infamous for drug dealing, Hord said.

“There’s absolutely no other reason to go over there,” he said.

Violations are tracked, and three elected homeless officials, including Hord, decide whether people should be banned from Nickelsville for periods ranging from 24 hours to forever.

Everyone living in Nickelsville must have valid identification, and their names are checked against a database of sex offenders.

“All of the rules are a good thing,” said Chrystina Atkeson, 28, who just moved into Nickelsville with her boyfriend, Tu Hoang. “I’ve never had my own place. The rules make you responsible. It’s a community here. It’s way better than being on the street.”

Hord is a full-blooded Ojibwa — or Chippewa — Indian from Minnesota who worked on tanks in the Army and has been homeless for eight years in Seattle. He has no intention of living in a traditional homeless shelter and is not ready to apply for a Housing First apartment, saying only that he’s still dealing with “untreated childhood trauma.”

To outsiders, Hord acknowledged that Nickelsville’s reputation is “less than positive.”

But to the people who live there, Hord said, “it’s a place where 40 homeless people are trying to rebuild their lives.”

ONE OF THE next steps out of encampments like Nickelsville is moving into a private apartment or home, using government housing vouchers.

But one of the most difficult challenges for cities like Seattle and Honolulu is persuading landlords in a red-hot housing market to rent to people who might be addicted to drugs and alcohol or might have mental health problems.

“Seattle has over 200 people currently with a voucher in hand searching for a landlord,” said Miller, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness official. “Honolulu is facing similar situations to Seattle, which is how to engage the landlords. The money’s on the table. These vouchers will pay the rent with services attached. And there is always someone to call if there are problems.”

Government officials in Seattle recently held a rally to encourage landlords to rent to homeless veterans.

Following the event, “the local homelessness coordinating entity did get quite a few phone calls from landlords saying they’d like to participate,” said Daniel Malone, executive director of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Services Center, which also works to find traditional apartments for homeless people in the open rental market.

Portland’s mayor and county chairman in nearby Oregon are even calling landlords directly to persuade them to rent to homeless people, Miller said.

Housing authorities in Los Angeles and San Francisco also have asked federal housing officials to increase the value of housing vouchers to keep up with rising market prices — something Hawaii officials might consider, Miller said.

The downside is that the increased value of each voucher reduces the overall number of vouchers that can be used, Miller said.

In Seattle’s tight housing market, where rents can reach $3,000 per month, all of the efforts have resulted in “a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest,” Malone said. “We’re struggling to find apartments that we can get our clients into. It’s very much a landlord’s market now.”

To persuade landlords, Malone said, “The basic message is pretty simple: We have people in need who need a place to live, and we are providing ongoing services to those individuals. With the rent subsidies that we control, we can guarantee that the rent is going to be paid. That is something the landlord doesn’t have from any renter coming in off the street. We also have the ability to offer assurances about covering any damages that may occur. We also promise to follow up if needs arise. In other words, if things start to go south with the tenant, we’re not just going to say, ‘It’s your problem now.’ We can’t assure you there will never be a problem, but we can assure you that if there’s a problem we will follow up quickly and do everything we can to resolve the problem.”

When it works, Malone said, “Landlords tend to stick with the program. Attracting new landlords has been difficult.”

Last year alone the YWCA’s Landlord Liaison Project found permanent housing for 603 homeless individuals and families in Seattle, said the program’s director, Mona Tschurwald.

“From 2009, when we started, to May 2015, we have housed 2,430 households, which represents over 5,000 people. That’s a lot of homeless people. Many, many cities around the country have contacted us. Some start with veterans. Some start with families. Some will focus on 100 people and see what happens. It is a problem nationally.”

As she spoke, a bell went off in her office, and Tschurwald explained all of the excitement that followed.

“When we house somebody, we ring a bell,” Tschurwald said, “because we’re all better off if homeless people are housed.”

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