St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a dark red brick building in Ballard, sits on a border, of sorts, where a neighborhood of single family homes meets apartment complexes just blocks north of Ballard’s main commercial and nightlife district.
Ballard Commons Park, well-lit and well-kept, is across the street. The lighting is good enough that it must be difficult for the people gathered there, many with small carts or other baggage, to fully block it out and get some sleep.
Inside the church campus, its views blocked off from the street by shrubbery and architecture, a group of homeless people get some respite. They have access to a building, not much more than a large room, where they can lay out their mats in security for the night before they must leave the next morning.
“This is awesome; I love it,” said Courtney, one of the residents. “It was so quiet, our first night here. It was so quiet and so dark.”
St. Luke’s hosts one of 10 Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) shelters that reopened on Sept. 5 after a five-month standoff with local government about funding that displaced more than 200 people, many of whom moved into the patio of the King County Administration Building in protest.
Negotiations between SHARE, its nonprofit partners and government funders continued in the background until they inked an arrangement to ensure fiscal accountability and the inclusion of case management services to help people within the network transition into permanent housing.
Mercifully, the shelters reopened before the infamous Seattle fall and winter rains turn an uncomfortable situation into an even more dangerous one.
Courtney, a young woman with a face full of freckles and wearing an Oregon Ducks sweatshirt, sat behind a small desk in a building at the back of the St. Luke’s campus, adjacent to a small parking lot. The interior looked unfinished, its floor made of bare composite-wood product and a notable dearth of furniture beyond a television and a set of shelves with DVDs. That barrier creates the illusion of a corridor when guests first walk in the door. Otherwise, there are no interior walls to speak of, just a bunch of cots and people’s personal belongings grouped on the floor.
Behind her was a chalkboard on which chores for residents were listed in a clear hand. Courtney is an Executive Committee member, or EC, for the shelter at St. Luke’s. That means, in SHARE parlance, that she’s a point person for the group that sleeps there and that she represents them in the wider SHARE network.
Courtney and her significant other joined SHARE in May, the month after the protest encampment Tent City 6 established itself at the King County Administration Building and a hardy group of campers led an invasion of nearby Goat Hill to create Tent City 7. Courtney became an EC of TC6 and was invited to do the same for the indoor shelter at St. Luke’s when the doors reopened.
It was an adjustment for the small St. Luke’s crew who had gotten used to the crowded conditions of traditional shelters, in some cases, and the sounds and streetlights downtown in others. But at least one resident, Jason, is bullish on it.
“I’m brand new here,” Jason said. He’d arrived just two days earlier. “It’s a lot better than the other shelter. There’s not a lot of drama.”
SHARE remains a controversial agency within the context of Seattle and King County’s response to the growing homelessness crisis. On the one hand, it provides hundreds of low-cost shelter beds through a unique partnership with a network of local churches that take advantage of a 2009 court decision that protects their right to do so under the heading of religious freedom.
On the other, its style of self-governance and long-time resistance to city requirements — such as case management or participation in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a database of information on homeless clients used to allocate federal money — created tension between share and funding organizations that want increased accountability and proof of outcomes in exchange for their cash.
That’s part of the reason SHARE lost out on a contract with King County in 2014 during the previous budget cycle. Providers asked for a combined $11 million in projects and services, but the county had only $4.4 million to give out. SHARE lost out in the competitive funding process that followed.
The loss of county money, a structural monthly deficit and some confusion over the difference between contracts with share versus the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), its sister agency, led to members demanding money from King County, United Way and the city. When those demands were not met, share put its arrangement with the churches on ice and took up residence on county property.
That was when county officials began the conversation with share and the Church Council of Greater Seattle, said Adrienne Quinn, head of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services.
“One of my problems is that I can’t fund an agency that’s not showing good outcomes,” Quinn said. “We needed to make it better.”
Quinn came to the conclusion that not only did share need money, the problem was that they weren’t asking for enough.
To secure people an exit to permanent housing, the thinking goes, people need case managers to help them navigate the maze of service agencies and requirements. That will, hopefully, be simplified in coming months as the county puts a system in place for homeless single adults to plug them into programs that meet their needs.
Over the next five months, pieces of the SHARE puzzle came together. The Low Income Housing Institute offered case managers to give support to those residents who want it. Catholic Community Services agreed to be the fiscal steward, receiving the cash for SHARE contracts and passing it through to the organization. Nongovernmental organizations made $70,700 in grants and donations to help plug the holes in the organization’s budget.
Everything was ready. On Sept. 5, the network, in partnership with its church hosts, reopened its doors.
It was a welcome return, said Rev. Kathleen Weber of Trinity United Methodist Church.
“We care about folks who do not have a safe, dry, warm place to stay,” Weber said. “We cared about where they were and how they were doing.”
Beyond the church’s desire to do good — having the shelter and its Saturday soup kitchen is part of its mission — the arrangement with SHARE is mutually beneficial: The residents get a place to sleep, take showers and get out of the elements and the church building is kept clean and cared for.
The shelter at Vet’s Hall in Trinity United Methodist opens at 7 p.m.; residents can’t arrive any earlier and they cannot be within 10 blocks of the shelter until that time. A member goes to pick up keys to the shelter at a designated area around the Washington State Convention Center. They provide a casino chip — each shelter has a unique color — and receive a key in exchange.
People who want to come indoors have to go through a screening process where a designated SHARE resident asks them questions to try to figure out whether or not they’d be a good fit for the community. Most will be welcomed in, provided they are willing to abide by the rules, such as arriving to the shelter sober and being respectful of neighbors and other share members.
“We’re not in the business of keeping people out on the streets,” said Cainan, who works as a screener for the shelter. “We are the first responders.”
An added condition of sleeping indoors is personal responsibility. SHARE residents must complete chores that can vary from cleaning to a weekly washing of blankets at the Aloha Inn on Aurora.
Failure to meet the community’s expectations can result in being “barred,” or kicked out of the shelter for a designated period of time. People who violate the rules too many times or to a significant degree can be “perm barred,” meaning they are not welcome back at that particular shelter. Sometimes, people can be barred from the entire network.
The rules are important and give structure to people who have been living outside of society for a long period of time, said Taylor, a Tent City resident who spent years camping on his own in and around Seattle.
“It was hard for me to be around so many people,” he said. “It’s still hard to be here.”
He appreciates the system because it offers a way for a large group of very different people to live together and create community together. The rules maintain equilibrium.
“This is my home,” he said. “I don’t want drama or chaos in my home.”
The reopening of the shelters is a victory for the SHARE network and the people who call it home, but it’s not the end of the fight.
On Sept. 8, consultants for the city and county revealed a series of wide-ranging recommendations to reform and streamline the response to homelessness with an eye toward using data and outcomes as critical components to any decision to renew funding.
The plan moves resources toward housing and takes the emphasis off of emergency shelter, of which the share network is a part.
United Way, King County and two Seattle departments signed an agreement to restructure funding based on how many people leave services to go to permanent housing rather than the current system that reimburses based on the number of beds occupied. It mandates participation in HMIS, something that SHARE and other service providers have not universally accepted.
Contracts made through the coming budget cycle have these provisions built in, although providers won’t be held accountable for them until 2017. Exactly how long the current harmony will last, then, is an open question.
That will be tackled over the course of the next year as SHARE and other government-funded service providers orient to the new requirements, said Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.
“Now that the situation has been resolved for the immediate future, we’re now able to look to what can we do to involve more faith communities,” Ramos said. “What can we do to ensure that we continue to provide a roof over everybody’s head even while we try to expand the number of permanent units available and help people get rehoused rapidly, because the need for shelter is great in this community.”