While the debate over who should own the responsibility of the homeless crisis in Seattle continues, the Eastside has its own “homeless dilemma” — though it’s arguably less obvious to the average resident or business owner.
It’s not that there aren’t significant numbers of people on the Eastside experiencing homelessness — the Congregations for the Homeless (CFH) men’s shelter located in downtown Bellevue interacted with more than 600 homeless men in the last year alone. But on the Eastside, especially in Bellevue, the public and private sectors are working together to address the issues surrounding homelessness and are trying to get individuals the help they need while allowing police to enforce city ordinances banning sleeping on public property.
One example of this partnership can be found at CFH. For more than a decade from November through April, CFH has operated a shelter for homeless men in downtown Bellevue. It is a low-barrier shelter, meaning any man needing a place to sleep can stay, provided he’s not violent, and it is the key touch point in accomplishing CFH’s mission to get men out of homelessness permanently.
Though the shelter is privately operated, the building it’s housed in is owned by the City of Bellevue and in need of a new water main and sprinkler system to bring it up to code. Until that happens, the city only allows the shelter to be open six months out of the year for the occupants’ safety. During the other six months, the men either relocate to other parts of the county where services may be available, or they end up on local streets.
“If we are able to (provide) year-round shelter, we will be able to continue to work with the men who historically go back to the streets, keeping them connected to transforming resources that enable them to achieve personal and housing stability,” said David Bowling, executive director of CFH, an organization that has served Bellevue for 25 years. “We will also have a place for those who find themselves newly homeless to find safety, and quickly connect to resources that can launch them back into stability quickly.”
Among the business professionals working with CFH to address homelessness in Bellevue is Eric Stelter, principal of ESMB Inc.; auctioneer and philanthropist Larry Snyder; property developer Kevin Wallace of Wallace Properties; and Lars Knudsen, managing partner/director of HighTower Bellevue.
Two years ago, the group began to meet and discuss the issue. Brought together by a common area code and a shared concern for people experiencing homelessness on the Eastside, particularly homeless men (women can seek shelter through The Sophia Way year-round), the cohort has worked closely with CFH to learn more about the organization, the men it serves, and the issue at large.
“The Eastside is distinct from Seattle in that the government and community here is interested in ‘what works,’ whether it’s about traffic, politics, or urban cleanliness,” Stelter said. But, he cautioned, that distinction will only remain if people in the business community are really engaged.
Not having a year-round shelter in a community can cause many issues. Legal issues are included among them and law enforcement officers’ hands often are tied.
A recent judgment by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in the matter of Martin vs. the City of Boise, states that prohibiting homeless individuals from sleeping outside when there is no access to alternative shelter constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, violating the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The judgment notes that “… as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
Wallace stressed that CFH already is doing great work, genuinely helping men leave homelessness. But he also believes the on again, off again shelter system is not adequate. “They’ll be so much better at what they’re doing if they are a year-round operation,” he said.
According to the City of Bellevue, it would take $1.9 million, and two years’ time, to bring the building up to code. With the goal of helping to get there quicker, Wallace reached out to designers and contractors, who have donated their time and expertise, and reduced the cost estimate to $750,000. And, Wallace said, the City of Bellevue is helping clear a smooth path through the permitting process and actively is helping CFH apply for grants to cover operational costs.
The group is now fundraising for its goal of providing meaningful steps toward ending homelessness in Bellevue. They don’t claim to have all the answers or a one-size-fits-all cure, but they want to use their collective talents and resources to positively affect the lives of citizens — the wealthy and the destitute, alike.
Though Wallace recognizes there are times when the government is the appropriate answer, he noted, “(There is) something tangibly different about a city when the citizens are actively engaged in solving the problems with their own money and thought.”