This is part of The Daily Herald’s annual report on charity in Snohomish County. Complete list of stories
LYNNWOOD — One day earlier in August, Bobby Nelson and Gerry Olsen were having a smoke out by a shipping container in the parking lot of their new home.
Nelson, sitting in his walker, and Olsen, in a wheelchair, are two residents of Sebastian Place, a 20-unit complex for homeless veterans owned and operated by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. It opened in August.
Both men enjoyed the sunny weather and the fact that they had a place to go at night.
“I think it’s a godsend. I was camping before this,” Olsen said.
Olsen, a former Marine, was referred to the program after he wound up in the hospital and had several toes amputated, he said.
“I can sleep a lot better. I have my own place and there’s a lock on the door,” he said.
Nelson, an Army veteran from Louisiana, had been living rough for years, at one point renting a cave from the famed “Salmon River Caveman” in northern Idaho.
Both men were considered to be chronically homeless: people who, for one reason or another, often wind up on the streets, in emergency rooms, camping in the woods or in any other kind of make-do living arrangement.
They’re exactly the sort of people Sebastian Place hopes to help.
Communities across the country have been trying to grapple with homelessness and the related problems of addiction and mental illness. The Safe Streets Plan is the city of Everett’s way of taking a multi-pronged approach to the problem. It includes more social services, more targeted law enforcement, and the capping project of building a 70-unit apartment building to house the most needy of the city’s homeless population.
CSS is the city’s main partner for both site management and social services in the project, but it’s hardly the agency’s first foray into Snohomish County. CCS, through its sister agency, Catholic Housing Services is already housing about 120 people in units at scattered locations in Everett, including 10 in the Monte Cristo building.
Since it built its first housing project in Seattle about 30 years ago, the agency now operates about 50 facilities with nearly 2,100 of units. Some are various forms of low-income housing, or are designated for people with developmental disabilities, or a mix of different types of uses, but seven of them are dedicated almost completely for people who have been homeless.
The new project in Everett would be one more example of the “housing first” model that has been increasingly brought to bear on the problem of chronic homelessness. It would be considered supportive housing, in that it will have an on-site manager 24 hours a day and social services available in the building for anyone who wants to take advantage of them.
“We would provide the case management and the day-to-day support for the residents,” said Sarah Jayne Barrett, the organization’s director of housing services for Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom Counties.
Low-barrier supportive housing is sometimes counter-intuitive, especially for future neighbors who might balk at the prospect of homeless people living in their midst.
“It’s a different model than they’re used to, so it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around,” Barrett said. “Really, people that get in housing are more likely to get sober and get mental health treatment.”
“There’s 20 years of evidence that that model works,” she said.
At Sebastian Place, Kenny Berry showed visitors around his room: a bedroom with a small closet, a main room and kitchenette, a full bathroom.
Berry, a Coast Guard veteran, had once worked at Boeing, but sustained a serious head injury in a car accident that he said put him in a coma for three days and made him unable to work.
“I woke up in the hospital and my hair — I had hair then — is shaved all the way back,” he said.
He’d been living in his car for about a year before he was able to get his room in Sebastian Place.
Sebastian Place also is low-barrier and supportive, although its residents don’t require the around-the-clock on-site support and management that future residents of the new Everett house will have.
The need for this type of housing is reinforced by this year’s annual Point in Time survey, which found more than 1,100 people living in precarious housing conditions in the county, and 471 of them without any shelter at all.
Given the nature of the need and the precarious position many residents of these projects often are in, the assumption is that the provided housing will be permanent.
“Moving out or transitioning out isn’t usually a goal. It happens sometimes,” Barrett said. “Our goal is, year to year, to have 85 percent of the folks to stay.”
For folks like Berry, Nelson and Olsen, that’s a significant amount of support they wouldn’t have been able to find elsewhere.
“I’ve been trying to save up some money,” Berry said, “and rent’s gone through the roof all of a sudden.”
“I’m blessed, I’m breathing, I’m happy,” he said.