Eastgate residents draw issues with proposed men’s shelter in Bellevue

A groundswell movement to keep a permanent men’s homeless shelter out of Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood has taken off in recent weeks.

Residents cite a possible increase in crime as the No. 1 reason for preventing the shelter, but myriad other reasons have prompted more than 1,700 people from around Bellevue to sign a petition demanding the city find a different location for the homeless shelter.

Scores of residents turned out for a community meeting on Thursday, Oct. 27 in the Champions Centre church in Eastgate, where some questions were answered and many more were raised.

The proposed shelter would be located next to the Eastgate Park and Ride location, sharing 4.3 acres with a King County Health Department building. The proposal calls for 100 emergency beds and potential affordable housing for 60 more at a cost of $23 million in 2016 dollars. A host of services, including medical, dental, case management and addiction counseling would be on site as well. The facility will be built by Imagine Housing and run by Congregations for the Homeless. The plan has the shelter opening by winter of 2019.

Opponents of the shelter say they were blindsided.

“This is coming at us like a freight train. The location is very poor. Within a one mile radius there are almost 10 schools and daycares,” said Birgit Hansen, one of the originators of the petition and a resident of the neighborhood near the proposed shelter. “There are hundreds of townhomes nearby and this area is mixed-use residential. We have safety concerns. Where are they going to go in the morning?”

The shelter would be a “low-barrier” shelter, which means that homeless men would not be excluded from the site unless they could not behave appropriately. Low-barrier shelters could allow those with addiction, mental health issues and past criminal records into the site. The proposed shelter would have a day center serving breakfast and lunch, and men could come and go as they pleased for services, with a curfew at 10 p.m.

David Bowling, executive director of Congregations for the Homeless, said his organization’s staff works with the men using his programs to have low impact on communities nearby.

“We kind of come up with a shared agreement with our men. We look at what might be a draw to men using our programs and have discussions with them and with the community about those. Bellevue College might be one of those locations,” he said. “But we talk to them and come to an agreement that if a neighborhood is purely residential, they don’t necessarily need to go there. Most of them say well yeah, of course, I wouldn’t go there anyway.”

But residents have issues with the site, stating it is too close to Bellevue College and its population of female students, and that the location in Eastgate surrounded by technology companies would tarnish the reputation of Bellevue as a clean, safe place to live. The petition reflects this.

“In addition to our concerns for the safety of the residents of the neighborhood, we are concerned for the safety of the students of Bellevue College,” it reads. “Every year more than 30,000 students, majority female and as young as 16 years of age enroll in Bellevue College, which is located within a few hundred feet of the proposed site. We believe such a close proximity puts the safety of the students at risk.”

Bowling said that in years of running a winter shelter and a program shelter, between 1 and 1.5 percent of all their men are on the sex offender registry. At low-barrier shelters, Congregations asks for a name and searches databases to see who is on the list. While this has flaws, Bowling admits, they have another way of tracking men who might be dangerous.

“Our relationship with the Bellevue Police Department is a strength,” he said. “They can do things I can’t. If they pick someone up looking for shelter in Crossroads and he’s on the registry, they can give me a call and tell me he might come by later. Or someone from out of the area. But the vast majority of guys we know very well.”

Bellevue police did not have data readily available regarding any uptick of crime surrounding the winter shelters or Tent City 4. Congregations for the Homeless said that its own mitigation plans surrounding the shelter included perimeter checks to prevent loitering and that in three years of running a similarly-sized shelter, it had not seen an increase in crime over a base level.

Bowling did say that the last shelter, on 120th Avenue Northeast, did have issues with large groups of men traveling at one time and men loitering at a nearby hardware store, but he attributed many of that location’s issues to the nearest transit being nearly one-half mile away, a problem he says will be remedied by the Eastgate location and it’s proximity to the Park and Ride.

Dan Stroh, Bellevue’s planning director, said the Eastgate location was the best one of the 14 sites the city had looked at.

“Factors for this site include public ownership, proximity to good public transit, access to services and it is outside single family neighborhoods,” he said at the community meeting before talking about several other analyzed sites. “None of these sites were fatally flawed, but the Eastgate site was the best site, taking in all the factors.”

Last winter’s mens’ shelter saw 571 different men (309 of whom were Bellevue residents) and the year-round shelters at Tent City 4 and elsewhere averaged 76 men per night. Bowling said they expect about that number at the Eastgate shelter, with most of them having geographical ties to the area.

“The vast majority of the men that we serve are from the Eastside,” said Dwight Jackson, director of shelter services for Congregations for the Homeless. “About 40 percent are from Bellevue and 40 percent are from other cities on the Eastside. These guys are your classmates, your neighbors, who you go to church with. They are fathers, brothers and grandfathers, folks who care about their families.”

Jackson brought on stage a man named Mike who became homeless after a few things in his life went sour. Programs like Congregations allowed him to regain a sense of normalcy. He said most people who use Congregations’ shelters are normal people dealing with issues that anybody could face.

“The people you see with signs on the side of the road aren’t the whole picture,” Mike said. “I would guess that between 40 and 50 percent of our guys are working full-time. Many just can’t afford an apartment on the Eastside.”

Bellevue has split some duties regarding the homeless population. Redmond currently has a shelter operating for homeless youth, and Kirkland has pledged to open a shelter for homeless women.

Bellevue Mayor John Stokes said that an interlocal agreement to deal with the problem of Eastside regional homelessness has been in place for close to a decade.

“We thought it would be better if we had a permanent place rather than looking for a new location every couple of years,” he said. “The Eastgate location seems to be the best place, but if we find a better place, we will look at that. The doors aren’t closed on this.”

Some of the residents opposed to the shelter have stated that they aren’t opposed to a shelter or to helping the homeless, but feel that the location’s siting is wrong and that it is too big for the area. Others had concerns about the usefulness of the money being spent.

“I think the funding is a major issue, I work in the school district and we don’t have enough funding to help special ed kids,” said Dawn Black, one of those at the meeting Oct. 27, before going back to her fear with crime increase. “And there are kids as young as 14 using the Park and Ride. We are going to see more car prowls. Eastgate has had more than its share of car prowls already.”

The shelter (estimated at around $5 million) is looking at a $700,000 grant from A Regional Coalition for Housing, $1.4 million from the State Housing Fund and $1.5 raised by Congregations. The 50 to 60 unit affordable housing building would add the bulk of the project’s cost, at $18 million. Eastside city funding, tax credits, King County Housing, the state capital budget and a private capital campaign would help round out the funding, according to Congregations.