Seattle housing peer learning trip: Day one

Street Roots joined Commissioner Nick Fish today in Seattle — along with an array of city and county representatives, the Portland Business Alliance, and non-profit leaders to look at resource development and best practices for housing and homeless services.

The first stop was to visit the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) — an organization with a long track record of working with people with mental health and addictive illness. The group spent nearly two and hours with Executive Director Bill Hobson — talking about the organizations unique approach at working with individuals with a chronic alcohol and drug addictions through a harm reduction model.

The group toured the controversial, yet successful 1811 Eastlake Building — where DESC houses 75 homeless men and women with chronic alcohol and addiction issues who are the heaviest users of publicly funded crisis services, like emergency rooms, jails and on-going services.

Dobson told the group the only real rules here are being nice to one another, as we toured the building where an older gentlemen sat and drank a Busch Light in the day space. “If you can do that, you’ll be fine,” says Dobson.

The idea of offering a facility where people can openly drink is not new in the harm reduction world, but it is the first of its kind in the United States.

Dobson was peppered with questions from the group ranging from service delivery approaches and funding mechanisms to how DESC built the political will to create such a facility in Seattle. Dobson’s response was building non-traditional allies with law enforcement, the business community, and advocates. “If you have these different groups bought into the idea, the entire community will take pause, and listen.”

The group also toured the Morrison Building in the heart of downtown, where DESC operates a 190-units of housing that sits on top of a shelter that houses 200 plus women and men. The facility also offers additional beds meant for individuals specifically being discharged from the hospital, or in extreme distress. The shelter is open 24-hours a day, seven days a week. In many ways the Morrison Building is like the Resource Access Center that will be opened in June of this year in downtown Portland, except older and bigger.

The afternoon was spent in two separate in-depth meetings with the Executive Director Adrienne Quinn with the Medina Foundation, and former Deputy Mayor Tom Byers, and CEO of Philanthropy NW who talked to the group about building the political will and inner workings of Seattle’s housing levy.

The Seattle Housing Levy passed in 2009 by more than 60 percent by Seattle voters. The levy has dedicated nearly $145 million dollars to capital housing projects and rent-assistance over a seven-year period. The cost to Seattle households is roughly $65 a year, or $5.40 a month.

Much of the conversation about the housing levy was off the record, but representatives from the city, and county along with the Portland Business Alliance all had questions and lively conversations about the challenges of such a move in Portland.

Due to the on-going economic slump and possible federal cuts to housing programs along with projected revenue declines, specifically through the tax-increment financing system that helps fuel affordable housing projects — the region is faced with various challenges when it comes to ending homelessness and creating affordable housing in the future.

The nightcap was spent at FareStart — an impressive culinary program/restaurant that trains people experiencing homelessness and disadvantaged individuals

In attendance were representatives from the federal agency Housing and Urban Development, the Gates and Medina Foundations and Enterprise, a national non-profit devoted to financing affordable housing developments.

The theme of the night was building a broader partnership around housing in the Pacific Northwest, and how Portland can both learn from Seattle and work with larger foundations to have a role in funding homeless and affordable housing projects in the Portland region.

Tune in tomorrow for an interview with Commissioner Nick Fish, and for a look at day two on the housing and homelessness peer learning trip happening in Seattle.

— Israel Bayer

2 responses to “Seattle housing peer learning trip: Day one

  1. Harm reduction!! Yes!!

  2. Pingback: Housing commissioner Nick Fish talks to SR in Seattle | For those who can’t afford free speech

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