Your Neighbor's Last Roof Was the Viaduct

Does it bother you that the county is renting him a place next to you?

On a winding road off Highway 99 is a sprawling, grassy apartment complex with more than a dozen buildings. The entrance is festooned with flags beckoning new renters, and a newly renovated name connotes upscale panache. But I've been asked to protect its identity, so I'll just call it the Nondescript at Aurora Vista. The complex needs to remain anonymous because, unbeknownst to current and potential tenants, it's been the site of an experiment this past year in housing the homeless. With funding from King County, a team of social workers has coaxed roughly two dozen chronically homeless people—most with severe addictions and some sort of mental disorder—out from nearby woods and under bridges, and placed them directly into one-bedroom units at the Vista. The transition hasn't been easy. "People who have cooked their meals in tin cans on an open fire for years are still doing so in their fireplaces," according to an August report on the project by the King County Housing Authority. "Others have slept on their balconies and/or pitched tents in their living rooms." "For some people, living within four walls can be difficult," says Declan Wynne of Sound Mental Health (SMH), the social service agency that's contracted with the county to run the project. Being near Highway 99 doesn't help either, since it's a perennial magnet for drugs, crime, and hookers. "Some of our clients have become prey to these people," Wynne says. "We've gone out some mornings [to check on a resident], and six people will come out of the unit." Still, there have been no violent incidents involving his clients, Wynne says, only "disturbances." Just four of the tenants have been kicked out since the program began. (A few more have wandered away of their own accord.) In fact, the project is considered enough of a success that the state has agreed to pay for 25 more slots. This seems like great news for homeless advocates. Yet it's hard to think that running the program below the neighbors' radar won't set the county up for some serious blowback should an incident ever occur. The pilot project is part of a social services movement called "Housing First." The idea is that if you start with four walls and indoor plumbing, sobriety or mental stability may follow. And even if they don't, getting people off the streets has social and financial benefits of its own. The concept received lots of press attention recently because of a controversial Seattle residence on Eastlake Avenue. There, the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been offering government-funded apartments to hard-core street drunks with no strings attached—that is, no requirement that they stop drinking or agree to treatment. The rules are the same at Aurora Vista. But, in a way, the project is more daring. The Eastlake facility is homeless-only, owned and run by a social service agency; while at the Vista, hard-living homeless have moved in alongside the general population of a private development. Finding a landlord who was willing to buy into the idea wasn't easy, of course. SMH contacted more than 50 property managers in the target area, without success. "Many were reluctant to even entertain the notion of working with the homeless," according to the housing authority report. Most of the individuals SMH was looking to house have histories of eviction and have spent time behind bars. "That population is not attractive to private landlords," says Wynne, with dry understatement. But here's what is attractive: getting a vacant apartment leased out to the government, with payment assured. That's essentially how the project works. Using federal Section 8 grants (funneled through the King County Housing Authority), SMH guarantees the rent will be paid in full, on time, for years, regardless of who's occupying the apartment, and even if it sits empty for a while. SMH also guarantees "crisis response 24-7," says Wynne. Those safeguards were apparently enough to interest the management at the Vista, which, needless to say, is located well outside the charmed circle of Seattle affluence. Multiple cars with flat tires rest in its parking lot, and there's a dead square of concrete that was once a basketball court. It's not hard to see why those responsible for filling units at this place might be attracted to the idea of government-guaranteed leasing, even if the tenants might be a little sketchy. Or perhaps they were motivated more by social conscience. I'll never know because they wouldn't be interviewed. The landlord agreed to start with a few SMH clients, and has since scaled up over a period of months. "The key has been fast response to any problem," says Wynne. SMH screens the tenants and sets the criteria. "We wanted to have as low a barrier as we could," he says. (Though more than 20 applicants had criminal histories that were deemed to be over the top.) Wynne's team visits the residents a minimum of three times a week. There's no requirement that they accept counseling or any other services, but "very few shut the door on us," says Wynne. Eventually, he says, "we're hoping someone could graduate from this program and live with a voucher on their own." For now, he concedes, "it's very hard." SMH isn't the only social service agency making quiet arrangements with private landlords. But the Vista appears to be the largest such project to date. And the strategy, sometimes known as "master leasing," is clearly gaining momentum. The city and county goal of "ending homelessness" by 2015 can't be achieved by constructing all new buildings, says Bill Hobson, head of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. The homeless need more access to existing units. As such, the county-supported Committee to End Homelessness is getting ready to award some lucky agency a major contract for "outreach to landlords." But why does it all have to be done on the q.t.? "There's so much stigma attached to the kind of circumstances homeless people are coming from," explains Donald Chamberlain, the director of programs for local nonprofit Building Changes, which recently held a roundtable on "master leasing." "It's better to let people find out on their own," he says. After all, "when you move in [to an apartment building], you don't get a dossier on your neighbors." The real reason to keep the whole thing quiet, I suspect, is to prevent the building from being stigmatized. Which is understandable—but it could also be the program's Achilles' heel. If you want to change people's preconceptions about what it means to have a homeless addict move in upstairs, you need to let them know they have one.

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