Standing outside his small room at the North Bend Motel on a Tuesday afternoon, Robert Allen, 61, tossed a brown, bone-shaped dog treat, and watched it arch through the air. The eyes of an 8-year-old chow, lab and German shepherd mix didn’t leave the treat until it landed safely in his mouth.
Allen let out an infectious laugh and fished around for another treat for his dog, Jaxx.
Only five months ago, Allen, who has several health problems, was sleeping on the floor of a shelter. Like many who end up homeless, he lost housing after unexpected circumstances collided with unforeseen health issues.
The pair were offered a room at the motel in March as the coronavirus pandemic exploded in King County.
They’re recipients of a motel voucher program run by Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services, designed to get some of the most medically vulnerable people off the streets, and providing them a safe spot to socially distance themselves. The program also highlights how essential even a simple room is for people experiencing homelessness.
“You’re just trying to get enough time where you can relax, get strong,” he said. “I’m still recovering from my (ulcer) operation, I don’t know what I’d do right now if I had to be sleeping in a tent.”
Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services director Jennifer Kirk said if residents have housing first, it gives them a chance to address other challenges.
“We’ve really seen this amazing level of stability in them,” Kirk said. “It’s proof that the housing first model works. That’s what we’re seeing.”
The motel program gave one resident the stability to deal with his addiction and get clean. And for Allen, who doesn’t drink or use drugs, it’s giving him space and security to think about his future again.
Housing first was widely adopted by local municipalities in King County over the last two decades. The idea is simple: get people housed first — without requirements, conditions or mandates — and surround them with services.
And while the goal of housing first is to get people into permanent housing — with a lease, and paying rent they can afford — for the handful of people Kirk can place in motels, the program is life-changing.
“Providing that motel, that place to call his own for now, I think it’s invaluable,” Kirk said. “The ability to have that door to lock, and a place to put your stuff, and have everything safe. There’s a lot of trauma that people experience when they’re homeless.”
Three crashes and a fall
Until last year, Allen had never been homeless in his life.
The affable man with bushy gray hair sprouting from his head has, in the past, run a restaurant with an attached three-bedroom inn in Port Townsend, before he lost it to flood damage some two decades ago. He’s sponsored community events and traveled the world.
But three car accidents in his lifetime, and a fall within the last year, have left him with chronic internal bleeding, gout and memory problems.
Allen moved to the Carnation area about 20 years ago. A car accident eight years ago left him with severe injuries. It took him years to recover enough to go back to work at a pizza place.
While living with his partner, who spent most of their time working in Oregon, he took care of the pets and worked a pizza job when he could. But a leaky roof damaged a room at their house, and made it unsellable.
When Allen’s partner stopped paying the bills, he moved into a trailer next door with Jaxx, where he took care of his ailing neighbor and the property. Allen said he had a lease, but was nonetheless evicted by his neighbor’s son, who last year gave him five minutes to clear out the trailer and leave, without reason.
With little recourse outside of taking legal action, Allen decided to leave.
“My head’s going like this,” Allen said, tracing circles in the air with his pointer finger.
He ended up in North Bend, and contacted Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services. He spent last winter in their cold weather shelter.
Within the last year, while helping a friend move, Allen fell while carrying a box of books. The impact ruptured a stomach ulcer, sending him to the hospital. It left him unable to eat meat and most processed foods, and gave him internal bleeding.
These health problems place the good-natured 61-year-old at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications. So after the winter shelter closed, and after spending one subsequent night at the Eastside’s Tent City 4, Allen received a call from Kirk, offering him a motel room.
Now Allen’s days include taking Jaxx for walks, cleaning up the parking lot across the street where he walks the dog, and thinking about the future.
But he also thinks about ending up back to the streets.
“I worry about it every day,” Allen said.
He keeps a bug-out bag on a chair, packed with essentials he needs to survive. Another bag is filled with Jaxx’s toys. A third holds his clothes. Other items are neatly stacked on a shelf in the motel room.
It costs about $500 to rent each room per week, but Kirk said they have enough funding to rent them for the foreseeable future. And Shelter Services staff are in frequent contact with motel residents to help them with access to social and health services.
While the motel program has provided much-needed stability to Allen and other residents, including a family of three, the goal of housing first is to get people into their own apartment. But a lack of affordable housing in the Snoqualmie Valley has hampered Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services’ search for local rooms.
Kirk said they sponsor one family, but had to look as far west as Issaquah, at an Imagine Housing property, to find a suitable apartment for them.
“As most people know out in the valley, low-income attainable housing for our folks is pretty unheard of,” she said.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a dire shortage of affordable housing in King County. A report released last year found the county needed to build or preserve 44,000 affordable housing units by 2024.
Different avenues, proven results
Housing first programs in King County were started some 20 years ago by Bill Hobson, the director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), who created the 1811 Eastlake apartment complex. It’s a no-barrier housing center for homeless people who suffered from alcohol use disorder.
Though it was met with skepticism at first, it has since bloomed into a model that Seattle and King County follow. The organization runs 13 housing buildings in Seattle, and helps people find individual apartments across the county.
Daniel Malone, DESC’s current executive director, said the key to their model is getting people into housing, coupled with providing voluntary wrap-around services to tackle problems like alcohol abuse and mental illness.
“It isn’t just putting somebody in an apartment and forgetting about them, it’s quite the opposite,” Malone said. “It assumes that having a stable, safe, reliable place to live is a foundation that is necessary for people to make gains in their lives.”
Before housing first was adopted, most housing programs required intensive treatment or sobriety before handing over the keys. But with voluntary participation in housing first programs, if done right, nearly everyone ends up accepting services, Malone said.
Several studies have showing the model to be effective. These include a study on the New York City Pathways model, which showed after five years, 88 percent of the program’s participants remained in housing, compared to 47 percent in a control group.
Both the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development have cited housing first as a best practice.
But for the program to be expanded, more affordable housing is needed.
The 2020 Point-in-Time Count for Seattle and King County, a survey of homeless people in the region, found 11,751 people were experiencing homelessness on one night in January. It’s a 5 percent increase compared to the 2019 count.
Leo Flor, director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said they’re still committed to building or preserving those 44,000 affordable housing units. The pandemic has only highlighted the need for housing in the region.
In order to solve the housing shortage, which has pushed rents and mortgages sky-high over the past decade, more new units are needed.
“There is no way out of our overall regional shortage that doesn’t involve building more housing, and having that housing be affordable. And affordable to the people that really need it,” Flor said.