Dennis Bejin will tell you there's nothing like a little routine to keep a retiree's life on track.
At 63, he makes it a point to share breakfast and dinner each day with a friend who lives on another floor of his First Hill building where he volunteers every Monday as the computer room manager. Every Saturday morning, he walks over to Capitol Hill and meets a group of friends for coffee.
Come next year, however, Bejin fears that he and other disabled and elderly residents of Jefferson Terrace, a 17-story low-income high-rise next door to Harborview Medical Center, are in for a major disruption. In July, Bejin and others discovered that their landlord, the Seattle Housing Authority, is far along in discussions to let another agency start managing their building as early as January.
The shelter operator is the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which would house and provide case management at Jefferson Terrace for the chronically homeless -- men and women who often have a disability, mental illness or addiction problem that makes them tough to house. The housing authority says it's looking at Jefferson Terrace because it's close to Harborview, has a higher vacancy rate than the agency's other buildings and that, if someone doesn't make room for the hard to house, the goals of the county's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness will never be met.
The 10-Year Plan calls for creating 900 units of supportive housing for the chronically homeless each year, half of which are supposed to be existing units that are converted, not newly built, says housing authority spokesperson Virginia Felton. "If housing authorities don't step up to that part of the challenge, who else will?" she asks.
But Bejin and other residents of Jefferson Terrace -- half of them elderly and many disabled or themselves formerly homeless -- ask why it has to be them who makes room, how the building's eligibility standards will change, and what's to be gained by displacing people who live on the edge of their Social Security and disability checks, with many residents, Bejin says, relying on a food bank down the street.
For those who stay, life could be turned upside down by strict new rules and encounters with drug users or paranoids who would scare Jefferson Terrace's elderly residents, Bejin says. And anyone who is forced or chooses to move, he says, would lose their services and community, with the housing authority providing no plan at this time to assist in moving residents.
"For people in their 60s and 70s, asking them to move from a place where they intended to die and have friends and easy access to Harborview and medical care would be devastating to them," Bejin says. "They'd die due to social isolation."
But talk of moving residents, Felton says, is premature. "If we ask them to move, certainly we would offer assistance," she says. But the idea of converting Jefferson Terrace is only an idea -- no decisions have been made, she says.
Felton says the housing authority has hired Ellen Kissman, a former SHA employee who worked on the agency's sale of the Morrison Hotel to the Downtown Emergency Service Center, to work on tenant issues, including forming a tenant advisory committee. But there's no formal proposal to convert the building, she says, and the discussions around it "are really very preliminary."
Housing authority documents obtained by Bejin show that SHA has been discussing the idea with DESC since March and plans an "implementation target" of January 1, 2009, according to a Proposed Work Plan for Jefferson Terrace dated July 11. Among many tasks, the 20-point document calls for the housing authority to prepare a management transition plan and develop policies and relocation priorities for a resident transition period of two to three years.
On Aug. 5, after word of the plan got out in the building, SHA director Tom Tierney called a meeting at Jefferson Terrace, telling more than 100 residents who attended that their comfort would be the agency's top concern during any transition. But it remains unclear, Bejin says, how many of the building's floors and 289 units DESC would start using and when.
A person familiar with the planning discussions -- Nora Gibson, director of the ElderHealth senior center located at Jefferson Terrace -- says DESC's clients would move in with natural attrition, as existing residents leave. Some tenants, however, may have to relocate within the building. A separate proposal calls for the Public Health Department's Health Care for the Homeless program to use one floor of Jefferson Terrace for respite beds where the homeless could stay after being discharged from the hospital.
The respite facility would serve 35 to 40 clients at a time, or 500 to 700 people a year, providing much-needed care, says health services planner Janna Wilson, for those who can no longer stay in the hospital but are still too injured or ill to be put out on the street. An April 24 project summary written by Wilson notes that would include intravenous and polysubstance abusers and individuals suffering from depression, confusion, paranoia and antisocial behavior -- a population, she writes, similar to DESC's.
Bejin and other tenants have formed a committee to fight the changes. Once plagued with drugs, Jefferson Terrace, they say, took years to clean up and is now a well-run building that the housing authority should be holding up as a model of public housing, not tearing it apart -- at least, not all of it. Given Jefferson Terrace's size, says ElderHealth's Gibson, DESC might consider taking half the building.
When the agency took over the Morrison, she says, that was around 200 units. At 300 units, Jefferson Terrace is much larger, presenting a greater challenge to manage and "potentially displacing a marginalized population to help a very marginalized population," Gibson says.
Bejin calls it pitting those on the lowest rung against those off the ladder -- something that he and fellow tenant Charlie Burk, 62, says they don't appreciate.
"Some would make the argument that we are selfish individuals who want to keep their nice thing while these suffering people are homeless and out of the streets," Burk says, but "we are residents who are disabled."