by Lauryn Bray
In December 2022, King County and Chief Seattle Club announced that the Salmonberry Lofts in Pioneer Square became the fifth Health Through Housing building to begin moving tenants in. The Health Through Housing initiative is a “regional approach to address chronic homelessness at a countywide scale.” Introduced by King County Executive Dow Constantine in his 2020 budget speech, the Health Through Housing initiative dedicates one-tenth of a cent of sales tax revenue to the purchase and renovation of motels, hotels, and other buildings to be converted to emergency and permanent housing.
The initiative was born out of the COVID-19 crisis, when unemployment gave rise to an increasing houseless population and a lack of tourism put many hotels, motels, and inns out of business. With two birds, one stone, and not enough time, the County devised the Health Through Housing initiative to address mass homelessness in a more timely manner.
“When the COVID crisis hit, one of the effects of that was a collapse in the visitor industry and a lot of hotels becoming vacant, closed, etc. We saw an opportunity, so we asked legislation for permission to use that sales tax to, instead of building new buildings from scratch — which is tremendously expensive and time-consuming — buy these existing buildings, and they agreed,” explained Constantine.
Despite the economic strain due to COVID-19, the County was able to allocate funding to purchase 10 buildings for Health Through Housing use, and they are working on purchasing an 11th, according to Constantine, who notes that they are also funding supportive services in at least two buildings.
The Salmonberry Lofts building is the most recent of the Health Through Housing buildings to open and is operated by the nonprofit Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led housing and human services agency. Founded in 1970 by Father Raymond Talbot and members as a meal service, Chief Seattle Club has been serving the Native Seattle community for over 50 years. Part of its mission is to “provide sacred space to nurture, affirm, and strengthen the spirit of urban Native people.”
As of January 2023, 16 people have moved into the Salmonberry Lofts. Overall, a total of 571 people have settled into Health Through Housing buildings, according to Constantine.
“We were able to contract with Chief Seattle Club because we’re interested in reducing the gross racial disproportionality in homelessness,” said Constantine. “Particularly African Americans and Native Americans [and] Alaska Natives are massively over-represented as a percentage of the homeless population. And since Chief Seattle Club has a constituency of Native American [and] Alaska Native clients, it became a real opportunity for a strong partnership.”
Despite making up only 1% of the population, Native people make up 15% of Seattle’s homeless population. Before Health Through Housing, Chief Seattle Club had already been working to combat this statistic for decades, through initiatives such as Eagle Village, a modular housing complex developed in November 2019. The village houses 40 people and provides residents with “holistic, wrap-around services, including 24/7 staff support, an edible community garden, Cowlitz Health visits, and culturally appropriate support groups.” Chief Seattle Club also recently opened the Goldfinch, a 66-unit senior apartment complex that houses 55 elders through emergency housing vouchers (EHV).
“For years, the best we could do is try to find regular affordable housing to place our relatives in. They would get placed in places that didn’t have the support systems they need, the behavioral health care they need, or the traditional care they need,” explained Derrick Belgarde, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. “Being able to partner with the County and provide all of this internally is going to work wonders for our community. We’re going to actually be able to do some of the healing work that we’ve always known that we needed to do.”
The Salmonberry Lofts are located around the corner from Chief Seattle Club’s headquarters and the Seattle Indian Health Board clinic. Also within walking distance is Chief Seattle Club’s new low-income housing building, ʔálʔal — which translates to “home” in Lushootseed — and ʔálʔal Café on its ground floor, which serves traditional Native foods.
“There’s a really remarkable campus forming there. In the city that is named after Chief Si’ahl, to finally have a community growing there is something I’m really excited to be able to support Chief Seattle Club in doing,” said Leo Flor, director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.
The Health Through Housing initiative has been unique in its ability to provide free housing for hundreds of people in a fraction of the time it takes to develop new affordable housing facilities.
“If you think about the way affordable housing typically gets built, it’s a bunch of governments who each pay 10% to 15% of the total cost of construction. That process to build a capital stack for the building to get all the money together will take three, four, five years, and then you’ll construct it for two, three, or four years. We’re going to be at 18 months from the time when we were standing outside looking at Canton Lofts still under construction to when the first people moved in at the beginning of this year,” explained Flor.
The Health Through Housing initiative and the provision of permanent housing accompanied by culturally competent social services will provide many Native and non-Native people with the support they need to envision a life outside of homelessness.
“You can’t simply bring your things in, sleep on a mat, pick your things up, and go back on the street, and somehow expect to have the capacity to get your life moving forward again,” said Constantine. “[Health Through Housing] is absolutely necessary for us from a humanitarian perspective and from a societal perspective.”
Despite the fact that Health Through Housing has provided hundreds of houseless people with homes, the initiative has received some pushback. In May 2022, parents of children attending Eastside Preparatory School protested against the idea of housing for the homeless in such close proximity to a school, arguing that they fear for their children’s safety.
In addition to Salmonberry Lofts, Health Through Housing’s other sites include Federal Way’s former Extended Stay America, operated by Urban League, as well as the Northgate Health Through Housing building and Mary Pilgrim Inn, both operated by Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC). The City is also working on Health Through Housing operations for the Redmond building, which was, up until recently, used as temporary housing for Afghan refugees. There is also a Health Through Housing building, Don’s Place, in Auburn being operated by Compass Housing Alliance, and the Sidney Wilson House in Renton, operated by Catholic Community Services (CCS).
King County also purchased The Argyle and is in the planning phase of transitioning the building to Health Through Housing use. Additionally, the Bob G shelter, which is currently being operated by CCS as a COVID deintensification center, is also being converted to a Health Through Housing facility. Deintensification shelters were set up to limit the number of people in emergency shelters. People were given hotel rooms so shelters could comply with social distancing and other public health recommendations for limiting transmission.
Learn more about Chief Seattle Club or King County’s Health Through Housing Initiative by visiting their websites.
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: King County Executive Dow Constantine, Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor, and Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Derrick Belgarde lead a tour of the Salmonberry Lofts Health Through Housing residence. As with all Health Through Housing locations, Salmonberry Lofts will have 24/7 building staffing, including case managers, housing navigators, connection to health and behavioral services, and assistance in entitlement and employment programs. (Photo courtesy of King County Department of Community and Human Services)
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