An industrial kitchen with six convection ovens and six burners adjoining a cafeteria. A locker room. A space for day care and other service providers. Something called a “tilt skillet” that allows cooks to transfer food to transport cambros efficiently.
If Beverly Graham, executive director of Operation Sack Lunch (OSL), had a magic wand, that’s the facility that she and her staff of 48 would operate to make the more than 1 million meals that OSL produces and distributes to hungry people every year.
(Full disclosure: OSL provides some meals for Real Change vendor programs)
As it is, OSL cooks in a network of kitchens spread throughout the city of Seattle. It works, but the diffuse setup means that other aspects of the program — such as pickup and delivery routes — must bend to fit the location of the kitchens, and some of the efficiency that the program relies on is lost.
Up until Aug. 5, it looked like OSL would lose its space in the Compass Housing Alliance building in Pioneer Square on July 31. That would be a huge blow to the program, Graham said — as many as 3,500 meals that OSL cooks and delivers come out of that kitchen every day.
Now, the program will stay there for another 18 months. That’s a win, Graham said. She’d been looking for an alternative space that would better fit OSL’s needs for roughly a year with no success. Although they won a reprieve from immediate displacement, OSL would be far more stable if it had a building under its own control.
“What we’re going to hope for is that we find a permanent home,” Graham said. “Our ultimate goal is one place to do all of our meals while still maintaining the satellite kitchens with a small crew.”
OSL isn’t alone.
Several nonprofit organizations that predominately serve people experiencing homelessness are searching for new places to operate, pushed out of their current homes by development forces and unable to contend with Seattle’s hot real estate market.
The ROOTS young adult shelter got word that the church that houses them — University Temple United Methodist Church — would no longer be able to provide them space because most of the building will be redeveloped into apartments, said Kat Ousley, the organization’s shelter director.
“The whole thing is going to be leveled,” Ousley said.
ROOTS has been looking for new space and has some leads, but the organization needs between 7,000 and 10,000 square feet for its 45 beds and other programming. They can afford more than their existing rent, but many spaces are asking between eight and 10 times what they’re paying now.
Vacancy rates in office spaces have declined to almost 10 percent from 14 percent in 2014, according to a report by CBRE, a commercial real estate broker. Tech companies like Salesforce, Amazon and Google have gobbled up huge amounts of space in the downtown core. While nonprofits are hardly competing against the likes of them, their rising tide impacts prices downstream.
Across the previous 12 months, tech companies have far outstripped other industries when it comes to snapping up space. Government and nonprofit organizations come in dead last.
Affordable spaces are disappearing. One consistent source of cheap space for nonprofits — churches — are closing or downsizing at a fast clip.
Trinity Parish Church sold the air rights above its property, so Northwest Harvest found a new home in SODO. The WHEEL women’s shelter lost its space, and has taken up temporary residence in another church. Tent City 3 set up on the property formerly home to St. George’s Episcopal Church, which was sold to a private developer, and the encampment is now struggling to find another host. Peace for the Streets by Kids From the Streets, another youth program, lives in a church slated for redevelopment.
The demolition of University Temple Methodist will displace the Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC) and People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) as well as ROOTS.
The shift is connected to the decline of church attendance, Ousley said. According to a 2019 report from Gallup, only half of U.S. residents report being a church member, down from 70 percent in 1999. Although most of the decline is connected to people who don’t identify with any religion, membership has fallen 9 percent among those who call themselves “religious.”
A 2018 Gallup poll showed Washingtonians were far less religious than the average U.S. resident. Nearly half of Washingtonians reported being “nonreligious,” according to the polling company.
Between the decline of churches and lack of other affordable space, organizations find themselves in competition for what’s left.
A change in the city’s funding priorities in 2017 led Peter’s Place, a day center and night shelter, to leave its home on Rainier Avenue South. That program folded into Compass’ building, creating pressure on the kitchen and storage spaces that OSL used.
When the city of Seattle decided to open the Navigation Center, an enhanced shelter that operates 24 hours a day and allows people to bring their partners, possessions and pets, they chose to site it at the Pearl Warren building. That forced out Operation Nightwatch, a program operated by Compass that served 75 homeless men.
The ouster led Operation Nightwatch to jump between locations for several months, wrote Rev. Rick Reynolds, who runs the program.
First, Operation Nightwatch went to Seattle Center for a month, which had capacity for 65 people and only one toilet, Reynolds wrote in an email. Then they went to the Municipal Tower lobby, then University of Washington Police Department building in the University District.
“[I]t was a great space, but the promise to the community was it would only be used until Labor Day, 2017,” Reynolds wrote.
The program now lives on at University Friends. The space doesn’t have sprinklers, which locks in the capacity at 50. That meant 25 men had to find a new place to sleep at night.
“The costs of commercial space are out of reach for most non-profits,” Reynolds wrote. “And small businesses are suffering as well. Market-rate space gets rented immediately, and most non-profits don’t have the resources to make an immediate decision.
“This was apparent when the city assigned workers to sniff out locations for us for shelter,” Reynolds continued. “A location would be identified and a day later, it was ‘never mind, now it’s gone.’”
Particularly when it comes to shelters, there are challenges in finding sites that meet the city’s requirements, particularly when it comes to shelters serving large numbers of clients. Those range from sprinkler requirements to specified numbers of overnight staff.
Displacing nonprofits that serve vulnerable populations is about more than just the availability of space. Geographic location is key to serving clients, literally meeting them where they are at.
ROOTS serves young adults, which is part of why it’s located in the University District. Their clients feel more comfortable there, Ousley said, where they can blend in better with the University of Washington students and other young people who populate the area.
“People say, ‘They’ll move to where the services are.’ That’s not necessarily true,” Ousley said. “They’re not going to go across town.”
Moving will also mean that ROOTS clients will not be able to avail themselves of other services offered by PHRA and CPC. Some young people struggle with addiction, and easy access to clean needles and supplies is critical to their overall health. For those ready to get help, CPC can offer quick access to opioid addiction treatment and mental health services. Nearby, an Urban Rest Stop location provides shower and hygiene services.
The program hopes to remain in the University District, Ousley said.
That could all be prevented if ROOTS or the other nonprofits had a place that they actually own, but even that comes with problems when “meeting clients where they’re at” means chasing them as they themselves are economically evicted from expensive places.
“It’s a little tricky because yes, nonprofits are moving, and a lot are moving south in particular. Is that because they’re being forced out or because they’re following their human service clients out there?” asked Laura Pierce, executive director of Washington Nonprofits, an association that supports nonprofits in the state.
“It’s not solely revenue driven, it’s service driven,” Pierce said.
Nonprofits are more stable if they’re able to own their building, but it also anchors them there at a time when their clients are moving elsewhere.
“Back in the day it seemed a lot easier to buy a building and own and operate it than it is today. That has created some challenges for some organizations if their population moves,” Pierce said. “A lot of groups in the Central Area have debated whether to stay put or move. That’s a challenge of being in one place, but it does yield a lot of stability.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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