There is no better symbol of the bureaucratic dysfunction surrounding homelessness than what is currently prominently displayed across from Seattle’s Rainier Beach light rail station.
It’s a cluster of 40 blue and green tiny houses, each wired for heat and light and brand new, built along neat gravel paths. There is a large kitchen, showers and a laundry. It is a full-service emergency shelter and case counselors provided by the Refugee Women’s Alliance.
The only thing missing is what it was built for: homeless people.
The shelter has sat empty for weeks now while hundreds sleep on the streets of south Seattle because… well, because our leaders fight like teenagers?
Honestly, that’s the best explanation I can find for this latest fiasco.
“It’s a bit of a feud,” an attorney not involved with the project told the regional homelessness agency last week. “None of us can afford budget fights, and I think it is.”
The fact that Seattle has an animal shelter that remains unused was first brought to light by former Seattle City Councilman Sally Bagshaw. She has volunteered to build the 8 x 12 foot tiny houses. She wrote to a number of city and county leaders last week that an entire village of theirs has been vacant since late March, during which time people living in green belts and under bridges have died.
“It is unopened because no supplies were provided,” she wrote. “It’s a waste.”
What happened was that the Low Income Housing Institute built the village because the city had once pledged to fund it and the city council backed it. But then control shifted from the city to the new regional homelessness agency. Last month, this group refused operational funding for the project.
This happened despite the fact that construction was almost complete at the time.
“It doesn’t make sense to us, and it was never explained why they would reject a shelter that’s 100% built and operational,” says Sharon Lee, Managing Director of LIHI.
At a recent regional agency meeting, some suggested that there was bad blood and a power struggle between the agency and Lee.
“We shouldn’t allow authorities to dictate how we operate,” said Harold Odom, co-chair of an RHA committee, referring to LIHI. Living in a tiny house village, he accused LIHI of overly “complaining” and being misleading.
“Before people can ask for more money, make sure they can do what they say on paper first,” Odom said. “And that’s personal.”
The regional authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, denied that the agency even had an ax to grind, at least not using tiny houses as shelters.
“If I really wanted to get rid of her, I would have just defused her on day three,” Dones said. “Well, they would be gone. We wouldn’t have this conversation, would we?”
See what I mean when I argue like teenagers?
It’s true that Sharon Lee can be a pit bull in a town full of poodles. Here’s how this newspaper described her in 1997, when she was embroiled in a showdown with business interests over a downtown homeless sanitation facility:
“Meeting Lee means having a strong opinion of her. She is variously portrayed as brilliant, passionate, charming, unpleasant, and insidious. Everyone agrees that she is steadfast. One person compared her to Jason the ghoul who won’t die in the Friday the 13th movies.”
Right, but guess who built the hygiene facilities – and still operates them today?
Since that history, LIHI has also built more than 4,000 units of affordable housing and accommodation. This makes Lee one of the larger developers of housing of any type in the region.
“They just do more than everyone else,” says State Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, who recently played a power play himself when he took $2 million in grants from the RHA and earmarked them for LIHI, a group he helped to set up 30 years ago. “They accommodate more people. Does it have rough edges? Yes, but so be it.”
“I think what we have here is a clash of very strong personalities,” says George Scarola, who was the city’s homelessness director in 2015 and is now an occasional advisor to LIHI. “The City Council, the Mayor, the RHA, LIHI, the other nonprofit organizations – we all get in our own way at times.”
OK, back to homelessness (that’s the human crisis this story is supposed to be about, remember?)
South End Village, which stands empty, needs about $700,000 to run for the rest of the year. That would cover security, supplies, manning the kitchen and some case work. LIHI can’t tap into Chopp’s $2 million because it’s limited to investments, not operations.
Lee says she will now try to open the shelter in May, using only private donations. Scarola says opening a shelter without a government partner is risky. So far no one has climbed.
On a recent visit I was told that the village has staff on site 24/7 despite being empty. Why I asked?
The answer was that people needed places to sleep so badly that some would likely break into the tiny houses and move in as squatters.
What a Kafkaesque twist. We have been in our “emergency” of homelessness for six years. And because of egos and feuding feuds, here is an empty shelter, guarded not to protect the homeless for whom it was built.
It’s guarded to keep them out.