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Monday, June 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neighbors welcome housing project for mentally ill homeless people

Seattle Times staff reporter

Rainier Valley resident Steve Williamson received an anonymous flier in his mailbox last month.

It said a four-story apartment complex for mentally ill homeless people was coming to a lot just south of the Columbia City neighborhood's business district.

Williamson knew he had to do something. A local labor-union leader whose father committed suicide after a struggle with mental illness, Williamson had recently vowed to speak out against stigmas and stereotypes about the mentally ill.

So instead of joining opponents, who worry that the 60-apartment project will stunt the economic growth of a once-dreary area and make their streets less safe, Williamson and several dozen neighbors formed a group to welcome the project.

"I don't want to be on a soapbox," he said, "but I wasn't just going to sit back when this flier landed in my mailbox."

Bill Block, director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, said he's never seen anything like the welcoming effort.

"I don't know of another example where you had a neighborhood group forming in support of such a project," Block said.

Williamson served on Block's committee and helped craft a 10-year plan to end homelessness in King County that calls for 9,000 new housing units for the homeless in the county. Williamson believes neighborhoods throughout Seattle, including his own, need to do their share to make the plan work.

"If we say 'no' here, what does that say about ever reaching our goal? The same people who decry homeless people in the streets have got to be ready for the solution. It's not that complicated. People need homes," he said.

Other supporters say it would be wrong to exclude homeless and mentally ill people from the area's mix of cultures and classes.

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Some of them, like Columbia City resident Kathryn Robinson, stress that they moved to Rainier Valley because of its diversity. "Brand me a bleeding heart," she wrote in a recent newspaper column, "mostly I just don't want to be a hypocrite."

The Rainier Valley project would be completed by 2008 on a weedy lot near Rainier Avenue South and 42nd Avenue South, on the edge of the Hillman City neighborhood. It's being developed by Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), a nonprofit housing and social-service provider.

It would house 60 men and women with histories of living in emergency shelters. Most have serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Bill Hobson, executive director of DESC, has pledged that his agency will screen out anyone convicted of a violent felony, including sex offenders.

The proposed building would feature 24-hour staffing to treat and counsel residents and help them stabilize their living situations.

In recent years, the city of Seattle has funded 362 apartments for people with similar backgrounds. The four largest such projects are in First Hill, Belltown, Greenwood and South Lake Union.

Hobson said he chose the Rainier Valley site for a new facility because the land is affordable, it's close to public transit, and residents would likely feel welcome.

The city gave the project a significant boost last week when Mayor Greg Nickels announced a $2.6 million grant for the proposed $15 million development.

As a condition of city funding, Nickels also required Hobson to draw up a "good-neighbor agreement" with the community. That process is scheduled to start at a meeting on Wednesday.

Despite the support from Williamson's group, getting other neighbors to sign on may be difficult.

The Rainier Chamber of Commerce has argued that Hobson's project does not fit a community blueprint for economic growth.

Resident Christine Acker-Atrosh told city officials that Columbia City and Hillman City are fragile areas after decades of disinvestment and that the project would not help neighborhoods still in a "delicate state of transition."

Paul Tan, who lives about three blocks from the site, said he'd have no qualms about supporting a 25-apartment complex. But a four-story, 60-unit building is just too big compared to low-slung buildings nearby, he said.

"Basically, it's still a developing neighborhood," said Tan, a furniture maker, and a four-story facility for the homeless could "stunt the natural flow of business southward from Columbia City."

Tan, Acker-Atrosh and Darryl Smith, who authored the Rainier Chamber of Commerce letter, are all careful to express their compassion for the homeless. All three also feel there's nothing they can do stop the project now.

With the city's financial backing, Hobson said DESC will close on a deal to buy the property in the next week. The rest of the project's $15 million budget is to come from state, federal and private sources.

Hobson said he understands the concerns of opponents like Tan. But the project can't shrink to 25 apartments and still be financially viable, he said. Rents and rent subsidies from all 60 tenants are needed to make the facility feasible.

He points to DESC's Kerner-Scott House in South Lake Union as a successful model, noting that the 40-apartment building, once surrounded by vacant lots and warehouses, now has upscale condos and apartments as neighbors.

Nickels says DESC has a good track record. "If indeed we're going to end homelessness, we have to deal with the most difficult populations. DESC has shown they can do that," Nickels said in a recent interview.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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