Homeless advocates say they should get former Fed building

Homeless groups call foul on fast-track rejection of proposed service center

By Casey Jaywork July 9, 2014

Last month, federal agencies rejected an application from a coalition of homeless advocates to convert the old Federal Reserve building at 1015 2nd Ave. in downtown Seattle into a comprehensive homeless services center. But homeless advocates like Tristia Bauman "believe that the application was denied…in contravention of federal law” and are calling on the agencies to reconsider the fast-track rejection.

The property homeless advocates are vying for is the old Federal Reserve building (pictured above) at 2nd Ave. and Spring in downtown Seattle. Constructed in 1950, the building was owned by the Fed until it moved operations to Renton in 2008. After preservationists sued to keep the Fed from selling the property, the Fed deeded it to the GSA, which acts as the federal government’s landlord for unused properties.

The application, submitted by local homeless services provider Compass Housing Alliance in collaboration with other groups, was officially rejected because of concerns about Compass' ability to guarantee funding, according to a rejection letter from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. (Real Change, one of the center's potential tenants, previously convered the rejection here.) But homeless advocates question this rationale. Bauman, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) last month that the denial is part of "a long history of non-compliance with [relevant legislation] by the federal government.” We have a call out to Sen. Murray. 

Homeless advocates like believe that "the application was denied…in contravention of federal law” and are calling on the feds to reconsider the fast-track rejection.

“The intent of the federal law in question could not be clearer," adds Alison Eisinger, executive director of the advocacy group Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, referring to Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The law requires that when disposing of unused properties, the government must give priority consideration to groups that want to use the properties for homeless services. Eisinger says after learning about Fed building's availability in November last year, local homeless service and advocacy organizations rushed to craft a 400-page proposal for Compass Housing Alliance to take possession of the property.

In Eisinger's view, the proposal did not get the priority consideration McKinney-Vento dictates. "If this proposal is not given true review...then I question whether the federal law is in fact being upheld," she said.

In its application to own the property, Compass was joined by two other "Key Participants": the Downtown Emergency Service Center and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. The three groups agreed to share responsibility for the property after converting it into a comprehensive homeless services center---a sort of central hub for the city's homeless services, which are currently scattered across Seattle. Consolidating services into one location—making them more accessible to the homeless—is a central rationale for coalition's desire to move into one spot. 

According to a June 2nd rejection letter from the Department of Health and Human Services, the reason for the application's rejection was insufficient information about the center’s funding. From the letter: “The applicant’s proposal, while it appears well-thought-out and the key participants have experience obtaining such funds, too little information is presently provided by the applicant…”

A spokesperson for HHS declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the decision: "HHS has no further comment on the issue."

HHS was responsible for reviewing Compass' application because the application involved homeless services. But the agency which actually owns the property and has authority over the larger process is the General Services Administration. When HHS asked the GSA for more time to ascertain Compass' funding sources, GSA said no. Asked why, a GSA spokesperson said, "GSA moved forward with the disposal process because [HHS] did not give any indication that it would reverse its decision after receipt of the additional information to be provided by Compass Housing Alliance."

Homeless advocates aren't the only ones worried about HHS/GSA's brisk denial of Compass' application. U.S. Rep. (D-WA, 8 7) Jim McDermott told PubliCola, “Last week, I spoke to the GSA to express my concern that the [homeless services] coalition was not given an extension of time to better explain the financing of their plan.” In a June 27th letter to GSA regional administrator George Northcroft, he urged the GSA to grant Compass more time to make their case. 

There are at least nine thousand homeless people in Seattle and King County, according to a one-night count SKCCH conducted in January. Asked about her coalition's next formal steps, Eisinger said, "We're continuing to explore all our options." A recent study conducted by UW researchers concluded that "Providing housing and support services for homeless alcoholics costs taxpayers less than leaving them on the street, where taxpayer money goes towards police and emergency health care."

The GSA Department of Education is currently fielding an application from Seattle Public Schools to use the property to establish a downtown school site. If it doesn’t pan out, the property will go to public auction. But Eisinger emphasized that homeless advocates “are absolutely not in a fight with the school district.”

“We are supportive of the idea of a school downtown,” she said. “But we still think that the federal law calls for the GSA and HHS to prioritize homeless use. And what we have in common with the school district is that we all need Title V [of the McKinney-Vento Act] to be upheld.”

We have calls out to Northcroft and to the GSA, HHS, and NLCHP.


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