Sacred Heat building eyed for homeless shelter

The city is thinking of opening a 50-bed homeless shelter in a Sacred Heart Church building in Lower Queen Anne, according to Al Poole, manager of survival services for the Department of Human Services. It would operate from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day of the week.

That would be an addition in the same building to the existing SHARE/WHEEL homeless shelter, which houses between 60 to 80 people, said Larry Pomada, the business manager and pastoral assistant at the Catholic church near the Seattle Center.

The two populations would be kept in separate areas of the building, he said, and there are different standards of conduct for the two groups.

Residents in the SHARE/WHEEL shelter - most of whom work - have to be clean and sober to stay there. But the residents of the city-run shelter can be high and/or drunk as long as they don't cause any problems, Pomada said. "We want to make sure we're not bringing any more trouble into the neighborhood," he insisted.

Reaction in the neighborhood is mixed, but the city has to do something, Poole said, because an existing 50-bed, city-run shelter in the Public Safety Building downtown will close on Aug. 1. The shelter will close because the building is going to be demolished, he said. "Obviously there's a lot of angst among homeless advocates about that."

In a city long on homeless and short on shelter beds, the news of the shelter's closing also set off a scramble to find a replacement. "We checked with most of the churches in the downtown core," Poole said, adding that the city also looked at the bus tunnel as a possibility.

Then the Sacred Heart Church entered the picture. "We actually offered our facilities," Pomada said. That offer ties into a mission of the local church to help the less fortunate, he said, but there's also a financial angle involved.

Sacred Heart, he said, is dipping into its savings account to pay for a yearly deficit of $20,000 to $25,000 needed to operate the building, which is also home to a Thursday feeding program. "We can't continue to pull money out of savings," Pomada said.

SHARE/WHEEL occasionally kicks in some money to help pay costs, he said. "But it's not a consistent amount." By contrast, the city would pay the church on a regular basis to host the new shelter.

Sacred Heart is the only organization still being considered for the replacement shelter, and negotiations are still under way, said Pomada, who is hopeful a deal can be reached. "It would allow us to break even on the building."

A city shelter at Sacred Heart would not be a walk-in, first-come-first-served facility, Poole said. "Under no circumstances will this shelter do that," he added.

Instead, the men and women staying at the shelter will have to be referred there by the Downtown Emergency Services Center, and that's far from a simple drop-in center, according to the agency's director, Bill Hobson. "People have to register here."

Registering involves an intake screening that takes 35 to 45 minutes, he said. "We want to know about mental, drug and alcohol problems." The idea is to help them get better, said Hobson, who added that the center also takes pictures of its shelter clients and issues photo IDs to them.

Emergency Services also checks its clients against a list of sex offenders, a step that raised some red flags in Queen Anne. Not to worry, according to Hobson. "We will not take a sex offender into the shelter on Queen Anne," he said.

A city shelter in Queen Anne would be staffed at night by at least two experienced agency employees, Hobson added. "And we'll have some janitorial staff to clean up the rooms in the morning."

Hobson conceded shelter residents can show up high and/or drunk, but he insisted that hasn't been a problem. "The reality we've seen at the Public Safety Building... is they go to bed." The existing population is also relatively stable, and there is very little turnover, according to Hobson.

Still, he is keenly aware that homeless shelters are rarely welcomed with open arms. "We appreciate the Queen Anne neighborhood's concerns." Hobson also said the agency would try to be as accommodating as possible to mitigate community concerns.

Pomada at Sacred Heart is also aware of potential backlash in the community. "We want to make sure we're not bringing any more trouble into the neighborhood," is how he put it.

Poole from the city has already talked to members of the Uptown Alliance, said the organization's former president Jean Sundborg. Among the 10 to 15 people at the meeting, none opposed the proposal, she said.

"I really honor the city for coming to us early," said Sundborg, who added that the Alliance will host a regular community meeting that will include the Chamber of Commerce and the Queen Anne Community Council.

"I'm in favor of shelters; we need them," she said. And that includes having shelters in the neighborhood. "I would rather have the homeless in shelters than using the greenbelt," she said of Kinnear Park.

Community council president Ellen Monrad expressed similar concerns - but from a different perspective. "We have problems already with the greenbelt and the (CityTeam) shelter by the greenbelt."

Monrad also said she has qualms about a new population of homeless people staying in Sacred Heart, "because they're going to be hanging around the neighborhood in one form or another."

Hobson said the agency's clients must pre-register for shelter space before 5 p.m. every day, and they can currently ride the bus to the end of a Belltown free-ride area about eight blocks from Sacred Heart.

But Hobson is also trying to make arrangements with Metro to get free bus passes for his homeless clients. "It's another resource that could help the neighborhood become more comfortable because they wouldn't be walking through the neighborhood," he said.

Chris Bihary has also heard about the proposal. He's a Chamber of Commerce member who has been involved with homeless issues in the neighborhood since the early 1990s, when the city plopped a homeless shelter down without notice in a former Metro bus barn at Fifth Avenue North and Mercer. The shelter residents eventually moved into the Aloha Inn Hotel on Aurora, which Bihary described as "exemplary."

"My biggest concern is the same as it's always been," he said, speaking only for himself and not the chamber. The concern, Bihary went on to say, is having the shelter managed well, not letting in the real rowdies and having the homeless respect the neighborhood. "We'll just have to see how this goes."

News reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.

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