REACH-ing out: Faith Community Seeks to Expand Shelter Offerings in West Hill Area

by Erica C. Barnett

When the Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches (REACH) started talking to the Lakeridge Lutheran Church in the West Hill area of unincorporated King County about partnering to expand and relocate its existing shelter for homeless families back in late 2019, their plan was to take it slow — go door to door, listen to community members’ concerns, assuage their fears about what it was like to live in close proximity to people experiencing homelessness. 

“We started working with Lakeridge in November, stating our values, and the plan was to extend it to the community and build the plan up slowly,” said REACH development director Maggie Breen.

“And then COVID hit.”

The plan accelerated, community meetings moved online, and the church and REACH scrambled to put together a plan to consolidate REACH’s existing Center of Hope day center and its nighttime family shelter, which, pre-COVID, served about 55 people each night. Now, it’s more like 35. The proposal that came together, called Hope on the Hill, will consolidate all of REACH’s family services, including the shelter and day center, in a single location at the church.

For REACH, it was an opportunity to consolidate its services for families in one, always-open location. For the church, it was a way of giving back to the community while also using some of the vacant space in the building, built when church congregations were much larger than they are today.

“Like a lot of churches, our congregation has gotten smaller over the years and has skewed more elderly, and we just have this huge building,” Karla Kuepker, a Lakeridge member who is on the steering committee for the project, said. “As a small congregation, we’re looking at what do we want our legacy to be — what do we want to give back to the community?” 

Kuepker, who joined the church about two years ago, said it was the old-timers who ended up being most insistent on moving forward with the plan. “Some of our oldest members were like, ‘This is our mission. This is feet on the ground and hands helping people. It didn’t take a lot of convincing,” she said.

The shelter will continue to exclusively serve families, not single adults, with the goal of moving people into more stable housing quickly. During one of two online community forums last week, REACH donation coordinator Pattie Holt said the average tenure in REACH’s family shelter is 77 days, although there are outliers — such as the family of 10 that needed more than a year to find a large enough place to live. REACH provides families with employment assistance, English as a second language classes, and help paying for debts like unpaid rent that can make it hard for people to find housing.

For many clients, REACH development director Maggie Breen told the Emerald, a lousy credit score or an unpaid month of rent is all that stands between them and housing. 

“Finding housing after having an eviction on their record is so difficult,” Breen said. “We’ll help a client pay off their arrears and remove other barriers to getting housing.”

Although the people who will stay at Hope on the Hill are all families with children, misinformation about who the shelter will serve made its way onto neighborhood message boards like Nextdoor after a Renton Reporter article erroneously reported that the agency would be moving its daytime meal program, which serves many people with more significant barriers to housing, to the church. (At REACH’s request, the site corrected the error.) 

“People got caught off guard and then they started freaking out,” Kuepker said.

At both of last week’s online meetings, shelter proponents assured worried residents that the shelter wouldn’t hurt their property values or contribute to crime in their neighborhood. King County Sheriff’s deputy Jimmy Mitchell, who works in the area, said he had actually seen a reduction in petty crimes such as mail theft during the one month each year that REACH’s mobile men’s shelter, ARISE, was at the church. 

Kuepker said this makes perfect sense: Ordinarily, churches are empty most of the week, making them magnets for low-level crime. When the shelter opens, she said, “there’s going to be someone awake and working 24/7, 365 days a year, and that tends to drive the crime rate down.”

As for property values: “I’ve never seen a reduction in property value,” Mitchell said at the Monday-night meeting. “Anyone who’s lived [in the West Hill area] for more than three years has seen their property values continue to rise.”

The community concerns have put REACH, and the church, in the sometimes awkward position of having to reassure neighborhood residents that they aren’t opening the church doors to the “wrong” kind of homeless people. 

“There’s that whole stigma of homeless people being drug-addicted and mentally ill, and there are those aspects, but these are not those people,” Kuepker, who used to work at the Downtown Emergency Center in Seattle (DESC), one of Seattle’s largest shelter providers, said.

“People have a certain idea of what type of people are homeless and what reasons lead to being homeless, and it’s super easy to just slip into fear — fear of the unknown and fear of your situation changing for the worse.”

“There’s a stigma around the chronically homeless population,” Breen said. “I think we inappropriately credit that population with crime and violence, and people don’t like to see folks out on the street corner. It’s kind of the stereotypical idea of what it means to be homeless.”

REACH and the church hope to open the shelter by the end of March. They will need building, fire, and other permits from King County, which a spokesman for King County Local Services said could take “a few months.”

Erica Barnett has covered Seattle politics for more than two decades. Read her latest on PubliCola

Featured image by Alex Garland

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