BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Examiner Staff

A proposal for a residential facility in the International District to house the homeless mentally ill is being received with skepticism, concern and sometimes fear.

The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), a non-profit organization that provides emergency shelter, survival services, clinical programs and supportive housing for Seattle’s homeless, is negotiating the purchase of land to build its $17-$18 million housing facility within the southern end of the International District.

The Koh family, operators of Coho Real Estate, own the 80,000 square-foot empty lot bordered by South Lane Street and South Dearborn Street, and 10th Avenue South and land beneath the Jose Rizal Bridge. DESC buildings are planned to occupy two parcels within that property, with one initially proposed as a 100-room facility bordering Dearborn, and the second on Lane Street containing 60 rooms. A park will cover land east of the DESC buildings.

DESC Executive Director Bill Hobson began reaching out to the International District community last month with two meetings at the Bush Asia Center. He familiarized over 50 community residents and members of business and housing/development organizations with DESC.

Serving over 5,000 people annually, DESC can provide 300 beds for “emergency shelter” for the homeless, Hobson said. DESC also operates six other “supportive housing” facilities in Pioneer Square, South Downtown, South Lake Union and Eastlake, with the largest being Pioneer Square’s 190-room Morrison Hotel. The newest supportive housing facility, “415 Tenth Avenue” by Seattle University was built on land purchased from the Koh family a year ago and will begin operation next year. Supportive housing provides about 600 total individual rooms, Hobson said.

DESC is also a state-licensed mental health and chemical dependency treatment provider, offering a “continuum of care” for its residents with case management services. Mentally ill and chemically dependent individuals seeking housing and treatment from DESC must have “already made a commitment to seek treatment,” Hobson said. Over 1,000 people are enrolled in its clinical programs, but DESC does “rule out sex offenders,” he said, and if a person hasn’t committed a crime in 20 years, “we will give that person a chance.”

Residents in the proposed International District site will be closely monitored by staff working 24/7. All tenants must adhere to “Resident Good Neighbor Requirements” that include no panhandling, public inebriation or physical or verbal abuse of pedestrians. “We are very serious about enforcement of that policy,” Hobson said. The public can report any violators of those requirements via a 24-hour phone line to the facility.

“You will see people on the streets – I don’t want to gloss over that,” Hobson said.

The mentally ill “tend to stay isolated in their rooms,” he said, and the DESC staff helps them reconnect to “activities of daily living” and “rediscover what they enjoyed doing.”

International District residents, particularly its senior citizens, repeatedly expressed concern about adding more of the homeless to a neighborhood already with a homeless population problem, making them afraid to even go out at night. Others talked about children unable to use neighborhood parks. Safety is an issue for the police, Hobson said.

“I do want to emphasize: people are free to come and go, and people will see them,” Hobson said. “That’s okay. It’s not okay when people are fearful – that’s something to be concerned about.

“I can’t guarantee anybody’s safety,” he continued. “Mentally ill people are less assaultive than most of us are.” Statistically, he added, a person is more likely to be assaulted in a market-rate housing facility than in specialized housing.

“There are 2,500 sleeping on the street at night because emergency shelters are full. And they are full because of a lack of affordable housing.”

Those attending the meetings also presented their concerns about the increasing density within the International District, particularly with the impending 620,000 square-foot, mixed-use “Dearborn Street” project a few blocks east which will include big-box retailers and 400-500 residential units.

“The International District is being squeezed again,” said former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga. “Traffic alone from Goodwill [“Dearborn Street” project] will be horrendous. I really question the beneficial impact on the I.D.”

Those living and working in the International District “don’t want a 160-unit site – I heard that loud and clear,” Hobson said, “We are willing to consider a smaller project,” he said, however, “I can’t do a project of less than 75 units and have it pencil out.”

For rent, tenants pay a third of their income, approximately $200 per month, Hobson said, and “the federal government makes up the rest.” The revenue from a minimum of 75 units is necessary, he said, to “support heavy employee projects.”

Sue Taoka, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown/International District Preservation and Development Authority, questioned why the DESC facility has to be located in the International District.

“The International District has been struggling for decades – to have some vibrancy,” she said, adding that there have been lingering negative perceptions about the area and that visitors “shouldn’t be scared” to come to the neighborhood.

“Three thousand people live here, and we’re just starting to get out of that,” Taoka said. “We have been doing more than our fair share in this neighborhood. This neighborhood deserves its opportunity to blossom. Anything can tip the balance – it really is a critical time for this neighborhood. We haven’t turned the corner yet.”

Hobson responded that he has “statistics that DESC will ‘stimulate’ the area rather than ‘retard’ development.”

“Our project cannot thwart the economic forces here,” he said. “We’re not that big of a deal.”

Hobson said he has been working with the Koh family for two years to build on their International District property. Attractive features, he said, include the “price of the land” and the proximity to the other DESC sites. He also hopes to have a community meeting room within the International District site to create “activity in a community space to bring people into the building.”

“Bringing you folks into the building on a regular basis,” he said, will provide the following benefits: the mentally ill and other DESC residents are “starved for contact with normal people.” And then there is the “educational benefit” for the public-at-large.

“Mentally ill people do not have horns!”

Hobson said DESC will “keep the community updated on its Web site”: www.desc.org.

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