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Haven for the homeless? Proposed shelter in downtown Kent draws concerns, opposition
A man of faith and compassion, Terry Pallas naturally extends a hand to help the homeless.
It is an obligation, a demanding role as shelter director for Seattle's Union Gospel Mission.
Pallas and his group, an association of churches committed to easing homelessness, say they have made an impact in affected communities.
Recognizing a growing problem closer to home, Pallas wants to do something significant in Kent. The Union Gospel Mission and its partners – notably the Kent Homelessness Partnership Effort (KentHOPE) and Valley Cities – wish to open a day center and overnight shelter in the downtown area.
The group is interested in leasing and transforming the publicly owned and former city of Kent Resource Center – a two-story, 5,700-square-foot building at 315 E. Meeker St. – into a multi-service homeless shelter. KentHOPE and the Union Gospel Mission indicated they would finance the shelter through fundraising efforts by tapping into its network of donors, churches and foundations. They vow to completely cover operational costs.
Approached by the group, city officials are far from making a decision, let alone entertaining a proposal. A city committee is in the outreach phase of gathering feedback through focus groups of business people, neighborhood associations and faith communities.
Pallas, who lives a couple of blocks from the proposed shelter, says it is time to effectively deal with what he sees is a growing homelessness problem in Kent. He made that clear at a business community forum March 14 at the ShoWare Center. The Kent Chamber of Commerce and Kent Downtown Partnership presented the forum.
"This is an issue, a problem that is not going to leave Kent anytime soon," Pallas told civic leaders, business owners and concerned residents. "As a matter of fact, if anything ... we've been able to project that it is just going to get worse.
"We would like to come alongside the Kent neighborhood," he said. "Let's partner in this together."
Not everyone is convinced that a downtown shelter is a good idea. Many business owners – those with stores and shops long established or recently opened, large or small – are worried that a shelter would bring more problems to a district struggling to regain its financial footing amid a sour economy.
"(It) could have consequences in the future ... it is not in the best interest of the downtown," summed up John Hinds, general manager of the Kent Station shopping mall.
Hinds and proprietors say they are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, yet question the location of a potential shelter. Business owners say they are willing to find solutions for the homeless, but not at the expense of potentially losing business.
Sandy Newby, owner and stylist for Rain & Co. Salon/Spa, put it succinctly: "(It) is the right solution, wrong location."
Other business owners are reluctant to strike a deal. Others are willing to negotiate.
"I want some guarantees," said Alex Dittmar, owner of The Airways Brewing Beer & Bistro. "I would not agree to anything where the city enters an agreement and business owners don't have a say into how this is affecting them.
"To me, the only responsible way to do this is to have performance standards in writing that are first reviewed by business owners who could be impacted by this shelter," Dittmar said. "And second of all, (let's) have review periods where business owners have a chance to comment and say, 'You know what? This is not working. And if it's not working, it needs to stop.'"
Jim Berrios is doing whatever he can to run a East Hill restaurant and help the homeless. He does what he can, applauds police's effort to ensure safety, but admits he cannot do it alone.
"Somehow we need to come together to address this issue," said Berrios, owner of Golden Steer Restaurant who serves on the Chamber board. "I'm willing to help out, but at the same time I cannot afford to lose customers."
Some back shelter
A few business owners support the shelter proposal. Michael Manderville, who owns and operates Caring Hands Transportation, is one of them. Raised in Kent, he has seen former classmates, even neighbors fall into homelessness.
"It's here. What are we going to do about it?," he said. "I want to do business in a city that takes care of the most vulnerable.
"It's common sense to me, in the short term, where people hanging out on the streets have a place to go. In the long term, teaching them the services and skills needed to find work will keep them off the streets."
With a population of 118,200, Kent is the sixth-largest city in the state.
"We're big time now," Manderville said. "Maybe it's time to start acting like a grownup city and take care of the homeless like we should."
Lake City businessman Joseph Simmons, who owns property in Kent and has been a member of the Kent Downtown Partnership for many years, has witnessed an increase in homelessness since a Union Gospel Mission-backed shelter was established in Lake City last November.
"If you think this shelter will get the homeless off the streets of Kent, you are mistaken," Simmons said. "You will find, like in Lake City, where we had 20 homeless people, we are now serving 50.
"I know the drill," he continued. "The homeless advocates will introduce you to individuals who are homeless, who are somewhere between 'Nice Uncle Joe' and 'Sweet Aunt Sue.' Who wouldn't want to help these people? We all want to help these people. But these are not the individuals who cause all the problems in our community.
"By having this shelter, you will create a ripple or wave effect of individuals who will just use the day services, but not be able to want to sleep there."
Shelter proponents say they will operate a safe and supervised environment, replete with necessary treatment and counseling services.
Despite volunteers efforts and support groups who provide community dinners, downtown lunches and other services, there is a critical need for a shelter in Kent, according to Pat Gray, of the Kent United Methodist Church, who supports the shelter.
"If you had the choice to walk the streets of Kent and sleep outside or be in a day center and shelter, what would you chose?" she said.
"None of us is happy with the way things are now. We have real issues to deal with in Kent. ... Hopefully, we can come together and come up with solutions."
Pallas says the group is determined to improve conditions. If not downtown, the group says it will explore other locations.
"What we are trying to do is open up an invitation to the city of Kent and to give an opportunity for those who want to use those services to get out of chronic homelessness and experience life change," Pallas said.