Missed opportunity: A retrospective on the homeless shelter proposal | GUEST OP

By Eric Greiling
For the Kent Reporter

With the City Council's decision to reject a proposal from Union Gospel Mission to establish, operate and fund a homeless shelter in downtown Kent, an opportunity was allowed to pass largely on the opinion of the business community's negative reaction.

A subject with so much potential for polarizing various sects of the community must be evaluated with a wide-angle perspective. Where there are many who would consider themselves interested parties, it is imperative that none of the interested parties be seen as more important, and certainly should be no more influential, than any other.

The recent reactions from a couple of Kent business owners, whose implication of representing the opinions of the majority of business owners was not substantiated, should not have been allowed to reduce the issues at hand to merely questions of money, industry and their view of progress.

I too am a longtime resident of Kent. I have owned a business in Kent, have many commercial clients on whom my livelihood depends that are based in Kent, and I have long been involved with working with two of the fine organizations that serve the homeless in Kent.

I disagree with Mike Hanis' statement that we are "all warriors in the battle against homelessness." Sadly, some of the initial reaction to this very attractive proposal to improve the service levels to our least fortunate indicated that many are reluctant spectators willing to pretend that Kent does not already suffer the negative consequences of homelessness.

In evaluating the proposal, it was critical to acknowledge that, simply put, the population of homeless on the streets of Kent exists right now, and according to estimates, in significant numbers. Services currently providing evening meals have no provision or resources for providing services during the day. Our homeless population is left to wander the streets, often in retail centers or in the library.  Loitering is prohibited, but moving a person does not make the person any less real in their next location.

Inadequate public restroom facilities present an obvious problem, leading to the necessity of using city park and retail restrooms, and of course inappropriate places. People without shelter add a burden to police and other public services both in time and resources.

The Union Gospel Mission proposal addressed these concerns. What's more, they offered to pay for it, proposing to fund all operating costs of the facility in return for rent-free use of the space.

UGM mandates that overnight guests are drug and alcohol free, dispelling speculation that those guests would be a threat to neighboring businesses at night. The shelter would provide meals and restroom facilities that would reduce panhandling and using our outdoors as bathrooms. The shelter would provide a place for the homeless to go by day, reducing the burden on the library and other public facilities.

UGM provides drug and alcohol programs. And although I am loathe to engage in the type of speculation that opponents of the proposal demonstrated, it does stand to reason that sheltering the homeless at night reduces the burden on police services.

It is not imperative that we even discuss so-called "warm fuzzy" aspects of a day/night shelter to see its value. Certainly there is a significant humanitarian aspect to the proposal, perhaps best dealt with by those who see a city as more than just a conglomeration of money-generating businesses. But evaluation of the proposal revealed more practical benefits.

Strain on Kent

The negative issues of a significant homeless population exist in Kent now. The strain on public facilities and services is real. The quality of life in Kent can be improved when citizens are not faced with their fellow citizens urinating on their front lawn and clogging the library because they have nowhere else to go.

And finally, a significant portion of the homeless population is in transition; homeless by misfortune and needing a safe place to rest and set their belongings as they seek work and permanent shelter.

In meetings regarding the proposal, it was suggested more than once that, where a shelter is in theory a good idea, the impact on immediately surrounding businesses would be too great and that this particular location was not desirable. This view was often expressed by the owners of those businesses in close proximity to the proposed shelter. Sympathetic though we can be that necessary services might impact some businesses more than others, it raises the question of whether a location that adequately serves the purpose can be found that would not affect surrounding businesses.

I submit that any location in proximity to necessary services for the homeless will be likewise in proximity to some local businesses. It is easy to say that the idea has merit, just not right here. It will be more difficult to identify a location that effectively serves the purpose while negatively affecting no one.

We can only hope that Union Gospel Mission is resilient in attempting to revive this concept, and that another suitable location can be found that will somehow satisfy citizens and the city council. This proposal was attractive, well conceived and presented by an organization with the infrastructure and experience to manage the facility and perform as excellent city partners.  To expect it to be perfect in all aspects to all citizens is unrealistic.

A city is a living community, dedicated to the welfare of all its citizens in a dynamic array of interconnected relationships, where the good for one should benefit the many.  Kent, as the sixth largest city in Washington, has to face all of the issues of a growing city, and cannot avoid or procrastinate on the negative issues hoping they will solve themselves.

Eric Greiling is a Kent resident who has owned a business in the community.

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