Breaking Ground on a New Resource for Seattle's Homeless Families

At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and South Hanford Street, a plot of land awaits a solution. Its recently-cleared surface will soon be home to a new building with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide view of the neighborhood, a spacious community area that will include a computer lab and meeting rooms, while the remaining 100,000 square feet will provide housing for as many as 95 families.

This project, spearheaded by Paul Allen as well as the City of Seattle aims to assist in tackling one of the largest crises facing the region.

The building, which is set to be complete by early 2020, was funded in large part by a catalytic $30 million pledge from Allen, who has contributed more than $2 billion to community-centered, philanthropic initiatives in the Seattle area and around the globe. The $46 million project includes a $5 million contribution from the city in the form of a land loan, and tax credit and construction loans from U.S. Bank and Bank of America, respectively.

Allen’s most recent contribution to the homelessness crisis came in response to the mayor’s declaration of the state of emergency in 2015. After three years of a growing issue, the mayor called upon local leaders make homelessness a “brief and one-time experience.” The annual count done in January 2018 by All Home King County found over 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and King County — up 8 percent in the past two years.

With the continued increase of people experiencing homelessness and the city’s consistent focus on solutions, the crisis is one that Seattleites can’t ignore. Like most locals, Allen and employees at Vulcan Inc. see homelessness on their commutes and daily travels around the region. As an organization working to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, it was expected that Allen and Vulcan would want to take on the issue.

Picture1-768x433 Architect rendering of the new Mount Baker Project.

In launching the Mount Baker Project, Allen and his team at Vulcan hope to address the ongoing needs of individuals and families experiencing homelessness and disrupt the cycle of homelessness in the future.

The east-facing entry will lead to a resource center for all members of the community, not just tenants. The building’s other entrance will offer access to residents — those who were formerly homeless, said Mike Woo, Development Manager for Vulcan Real Estate.

“It’s important to make that distinction,” he said.

It’s one part clarity, one part strategy. Mercy Housing, who will develop and operate the building, plans to use these types of statuses in creating a balanced approach to residency.

The local nonprofit will adopt the “moving on” method, which creates a flow of residents in and out of supportive housing. Residents will enter the building, in many cases from an unsheltered situation, with the ultimate goal of finding permanent housing.

Mercy Housing has successfully operated this strategy before, but never with this quantity of units for people experiencing homelessness, said Marcia Wright-Soika, director of philanthropy at Mercy. It is also the first time they will use the strategy for families.

Families living in the community will fall into three categories, though they all enter through the same door. Thirty percent of the units intend to support “high needs” families, who are immediately experiencing homelessness and require both housing and a case manager. Twenty percent is designated for families who are “moving on” — who previously occupied a “high need” space, but no longer need intensive case management, and the remaining 50 percent will provide permanent housing for low wage working families. “Moving on” families are anticipated to stay 2-4 years, and the cycle will free up space for those in need of high-touch supportive units, Wright-Soika said.

“We see this as a really unique opportunity to mix those high-need opportunities with permanent ones,” she said. “Families experience homelessness in different ways than single adults. There is usually a focus on trying to remain as stable as possible for as long as possible.”

More moving parts exist within a family, starting with the ways in which children and adults experience trauma differently. Children who experience homelessness are more likely to become homeless as adults — five times more likely, said Pearl Leung, External Affairs Director at Vulcan Inc. So, a key component to preventing future homelessness is limiting distress among children.

“Morally speaking, children are the priority,” Leung said. “They shouldn’t be sleeping outside, or in cars or anywhere that’s not meant for human habitation. The toxic stress that children experience from being homeless significantly delays learning and can cause behavioral issues — so if we can help families, there is the potential for multigenerational impact.”

The family resource center will provide targeted support for both children and parents. Families will have access to early childhood play groups — particularly for new moms in the neighborhood — and people of all demographics will be encouraged to participate, not just people experiencing homelessness, or poverty.

Local partners such as Mary’s Place and Refugee Women’s Alliance will lead housing placement, as well as mental health services at the center. Child care resources, play groups, health education and financial stability will also be available.

“The partnerships we recruited for the resource center and expanding capacity of diversion services is really important to how a family experiences these types of crises,” Wright-Soika said.

Over time, models have demonstrated that families tend to experience homelessness episodically. That’s not to say families never end up sleeping outside — but, for most families, the reason they experience homelessness is economic or situational. And since they typically belong to a network of friends and family, their situation lacks visibility.

Data also demonstrates the success of temporary financial assistance and case management for families as they hurdle an episodic crisis. The resource center will provide diversion services to vulnerable families, and offer aid that relieves the possibility of homelessness.

This type of proactive guidance and support plays a big role in solving the city’s crisis, Leung said. The homelessness crisis’ most significant issue is a lack of affordable housing, she said, and while 95 new units will help, hundreds of families will continue to wait.

“We’re getting toward one of the key parts of the solution,” she said, “But we want this to be a true community resource and asset for families. That’s why we focused on the resource center, where families from all backgrounds and economic status’ are welcome.”

Short-term solutions play a role as well. In the spring, Vulcan partnered with the Low Income Housing Institute, Associated General Contractors of Washington and the City of Seattle to build 30 tiny homes. More than 500 employees and volunteers organized by Vulcan spent a day hammering, sawing, painting, and assembling the tiny homes which have been placed in the Central District. Efforts like this can provide temporary solutions while the Mount Baker project and other permanent affordable housing is built.

It’s the blend of temporary and permanent, public and private — a comprehensive commitment to the issue, to the city — that excites Wright-Soika. In a successful resolution she looks for combined commitments from the government, corporations and individuals who want to step forward as part of the solution.

“This project is exemplary because it brings all those stake holders to the table and as an egoless project asks ‘what will it take to take care of these families?’” she said. “We are excited to be in the position to really do something that works — that is proven and families have told us they need.”