The design concept for DESC’s Interbay Supportive Housing. Courtesy of DESC/SMR Architects
The design concept for DESC’s Interbay Supportive Housing. Courtesy of DESC/SMR Architects

Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), a nonprofit focused on housing the homeless and providing social services, will break ground for another permanent housing site in Interbay this September.

This isn’t the agency’s first permanent housing building; in fact, it has multiple housing facilities serving different segments of the population and 300 beds in its emergency shelters. DESC has been focused on this work for nearly 35 years, said executive director Bill Hobson.

DESC focuses on homeless, single adults with behavioral disabilities. It has 10 permanent residences and three emergency shelters and provides mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, along with employment services. In total, DESC serves 2,100 people every day, Hobson said.

The 97-unit residency, from 2202 to 2218 on 15th Avenue West, will be DESC’s 11th building. The organization selected the property because it had all of the amenities — like nearby transit, grocery stores and parks — that their residents would be interested in.

The units will be above the first floor; the first floor will include clinical support specialists, focusing on mental health and substance abuse; residential counselors; and a project manager. The first floor will also have a meal space, community and recreation rooms, a computer lab, nurse’s clinic and library.

The building will be staffed around the clock, with at least two people on duty at all times.

It’s difficult to say what a typical resident will look like, Hobson said, but the agency prioritizes placement based on scores from their Vulnerability Assessment Tool. It targets people who are at the greatest risk to be exploited or those who cannot fulfill their daily needs.

“We tend to think of homeless people as this homogeneous group of folks,” Hobson said. “They’re just as heterogeneous as ‘the housed.’”

Residents will pay 30 percent of their income; many of the residents are on or qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). They will sign a standard lease with a few additional rules. They will need to commit to being a good neighbor and not being antisocial or engaging in illegal activity. Broken rules will result in consequences that fit the transgression, which often doesn’t mean immediate eviction.

Visitors must check in with a valid ID, which will be kept at the front desk until they leave. The common areas and outside of the building will all be monitored by a total of 50 cameras.

The building’s staff project manager will join community groups to encourage community engagement. Residents are encouraged to volunteer on neighborhood cleanup or beautification projects.

“We’re trying to build homes for people, and homes are always in neighborhoods,” he said. 

Common misperceptions

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) does not require projects in this area of Interbay to go through the Design Review process, Hobson said. When DESC was in its planning stages, the agency did reach out to the community and hold meetings at Seattle Center and Queen Anne Lutheran Church.

Hobson said his staff tried to set up a meeting with the Queen Anne Community Council’s Land Use Review Committee but weren’t able to connect. DESC also sent letters to all residents within 500 feet of the building, letting them know about the project and meetings.

The Queen Anne community didn’t seem to express much interest in the project, Hobson said, theorizing that no community group feels specific ownership of that area.

It had previously identified a different location more north on 15th Avenue West, and the main concern from community members at a meeting for that facility was whether they’d preserve the trees.

The meeting at Seattle Center only had four community members in attendance, with one supporter, two residents concerned about view impacts and a nearby business owner concerned about safety.

Safety inevitably comes up at meetings for DESC housing projects, Hobson said. He often finds people have a tragic misperception that mental illness equates to violence.

“The big culprit is the media,” he said. “You don’t get any stories of the 10,000s of people who are living with [mental illness] and have never committed violent acts and often lead successful lives.”

There’s a common misconception that the building will house pedophiles and sexual predators. “This is where fear and misunderstanding bleeds into bigotry, and it’s unfortunate,” Hobson said. Of the 2,100 people DESC serves each day, only six are registered sex offenders.

Hobson doesn’t mind dealing with residents’ fear. “What I dislike is when fear converts to bigotry,” he said. Still, he’s reassured by the fact that with nearly 11 buildings now, they’ve only had three major neighborhood fights.

“Interbay is going to be a great area of our town in the not-too-distant future,” Hobson said. “That whole Interbay area is prime for development. That’s what we’re seeking out: We want to create living situations for them that are as normal as we possibly can.”

Breaking new ground

DESC already has its building permit. The plan is to break ground the first or second week of September; after that, the project will take 13 months to complete.

There will always be impacts with construction, Hobson said. Contractors will give 24 hours’ notice before a traffic or utility disruption, but they don’t expect there to be any utility disruption.

The goal is for this facility to be a permanent home for its residents, Hobson said. “We’re very focused on ending the chaos of homelessness in these folks’ lives,” he said.

For Hobson, one of the end goals is getting residents work, which they often identify as their No. 1 goal. DESC has an employment program that supports employees and trains employers on how to handle employees with mental illness, but the program doesn’t receive much funding and can only support about 200 people at once.

The goal for their residents is recovery, through the ability to participate in their lives and community. “The brass ring on that carousel is work,” Hobson said.

While its website has major success stories from residents, Hobson said the average success stories are the residents who put their bedroll away and sleep in their bed for the first time in six months, or the ones who finally decide to change and wash their clothes.

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