An enthusiastic group of philanthropists sees a crisis in Tacoma’s population of homeless teens.
“Youth homelessness is the baby is drowning in the river. It’s the most important issue,” Angela Connelly, a leader of the group, told The News Tribune on Thursday.
They also see an opportunity. They hope to lease and eventually buy the long-vacant Hilltop Rite Aid and create a 12-bed youth homeless shelter there.
Connelly recently penned a hopeful op-ed in The News Tribune laying out a vague outline of the proposal.
But those plans have created confusion and concern among leaders on the Hilltop, where members of prominent community groups say they were never consulted and don’t agree with the Rite Aid as a location for a homeless shelter.
“The council kind of established that they did not want to put any more shelters in that area,” said Tacoma councilman Keith Blocker, who represents that district. “The Hilltop has a long history of feeling like too many shelters and group homes or transitional housing … people in that community felt like Hilltop was being targeted for those kind of things.”
That tension and lack of groundwork by Connelly and her group could spell trouble for the shelter before it even opens its doors.
‘Hearts on fire’
The vacant 16,000-square-foot Rite Aid building at South 11 Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way is a blank slate. Connelly and others envision it one day filled with a warm, inviting atmosphere for homeless teens. Several women have jumped onto the cause, including Gwen Ingels and Sandra Van Alstine.
A quarter of the building could include a coffee shop, they say. Another area might have a library. There could be an artisan cupcake bakery in a commercial kitchen that teaches teens job skills. Teens could drop in and do their laundry, eat a hot meal or take a shower.
“And we want to do an outdoor basketball court that lights up at night,” Connelly said.
Within there would be 12 beds for homeless teens. Ingels’ two teenaged sons came up with an idea, Connelly said.
“Tiny houses,” Connelly said. “Twelve tiny houses that people in the community can sponsor for $1,000 a house.”
A lot of these plans are up in the air, Connelly said. Some of them might not even happen.
But if the shelter does come to pass, it would be operated by a nonprofit called Renewed Hope Services, formed a year ago, state records show.
“This is a beautiful coming-together of people with hearts on fire for this already,” Connelly said.
Not everyone is as optimistic.
A few days after the op-ed was published, Blocker sent out a statement across the city’s media channels saying he didn’t approve of the location and was never approached.
The Hilltop has already been saddled with more than its fair share of shelters, transitional housing and social services, according to Blocker, who was homeless in Philadelphia before moving to Tacoma.
“This is a proposal that has not been discussed with me or my City Council colleagues, and it is one that warrants a more thorough analysis and the involvement of the appropriate city staff,” Blocker wrote.
Hilltop is poised for a transformation.
The Tacoma Link light-rail extension is expected to start serving the area by 2022, with a stop planned on the southwest corner of the Rite Aid parcel.
Several construction projects are in process or have already begun in a neighborhood that has long been neglected by economic-development boosters.
Community leaders say they’re unsure about using that prime piece of real estate as a youth homeless shelter when it could be used for retail or something else that would fit into a blossoming business district once the light rail comes down MLK.
Others agreed with Blocker: Hilltop residents are tired of bearing the brunt of homeless services.
“With active attempts to bring economic development to the Hilltop area, is there going to be community support for a youth homeless shelter in the middle of that community?” said Michael Yoder, executive director of Associated Ministries. “I’m afraid that it isn’t going to engender the kind of community support a facility like this will need to be successful.”
Yoder said he’s excited about the drive to do something positive for homeless young people. But Yoder, who’s attended meetings on the project, said he’s worried the conversation hasn’t included community groups who are already on the ground doing some of this work.
“There is so much great potential and energy here, and I just want to see it be maximized,” he said. “I’ve only been to meetings of a bunch of people of means in the community that beautifully have a vision for this, but I haven’t seen homeless youth at any meeting I’ve been at, and I haven’t really seen any of the key youth service providers.”
The president of the Hilltop Action Coalition, a community group central to the Hilltop, said Thursday no one from Connelly’s group has consulted with them.
Brendan Nelson said since Connelly’s op-ed was published, he’s heard mounting concerns about the group’s backers. Connelly was one of the leaders of the Just Want Privacy transgender bathroom initiative, which would have allowed public and private-sector segregation of bathrooms and locker rooms by birth gender or biology. The measure also would have prevented local governments from enacting laws that protect gender identity as a valid reason for bathroom choice.
“Some of the personal views of Ms. Connelly I am opposed to,” Nelson said. “When we think about inclusion and what our community is about — loving everybody, being open to everybody and making sure people aren’t excluded — I think some of her views around LGBTQ youth is definitely something that we, and I’ll say we, at Hilltop wouldn’t stand for.”
Gay and transgender youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness, Nelson added. According to an often-cited study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Connelly said everyone would be welcome at the shelter.
“There is no discrimination on transgender or sexual orientation, that is super important to us,” she said.
Connelly and her group have said they want to partner with Coffee Oasis, a Christian nonprofit that provides housing, resources, drop-in services and job training for homeless youth in Kitsap County, and runs direct trade coffeeshops.
The fact that it’s a faith-based organization has worried some, but executive director Dave Frederick said Friday the group doesn’t discriminate and serves every young person who comes to it. The first graduate of its job-training program was a lesbian, Frederick said.
Connelly added this about Coffee Oasis: “Honestly that’s what we love about this model. They embrace every single person who walks in the door, and they know that there is a higher proportion of LGBT teens experiencing homelessness.”
Frederick said Coffee Oasis sees itself being involved in Connelly’s project and is planning to hold community forums that could start in April.
“We want to go into a community where the community wants us and sees we’re a part of the solution, and they want to support us being a part of that,” he said.
A fresh start
The Hilltop Rite Aid opened in 1999 with community flourish.
Once called the best Rite Aid in the state, it lasted just six years before it closed in 2005. A Save-A-Lot grocery store briefly opened there afterward, but it closed in 2012. The building has sat empty ever since.
Like homeless teens, Connelly said the building needs a fresh start. Kansas-based Petroleum Inc. owns the one-acre parcel and building.
“We are going to fly out, and we are going to plead our case to their board. We want to buy the building. The whole block. It belongs to Tacoma,” said Connelly, who describes her job as “a professional mom.”
Rite Aid leases the land from its Kansas landlords for $526,860 per year, or $43,905 per month. There is a little more than three years left on the lease. Subleasing the land from Rite Aid is a temporary solution, Connelly said. Ultimately, she’d like the nonprofit to own the entire parcel.
“I have communicated with Ingels about their subleasing the space from Rite Aid and an eventual purchase from us,” Aaron Wiechman, a vice president for Petroleum Inc., said via email Thursday. Negotiations are ongoing.
Ingels said via email that her group has a signed letter of intent. The group could sign a sublease within two weeks, Connelly added. Albertsons’ purchase of Rite Aid should not affect their discussions, Connelly said.
Ingels was reluctant to release more information because she did not want to jeopardize the deal. The Pierce County Assessor’s Office values the land and building at $1.2 million.
A long to-do list
Connelly said the group did not approach the city about the project before she wrote the op-ed. She said the group has a capable architect working with it who “has a very good relationship with the city.”
“We’ve been waiting to get the signed lease before we jump too far ahead,” she said.
A city-approved conditional-use permit would be necessary to change the property from a store to a teen shelter.
That would require studies, plans and meetings with neighbors. The long list of requirements is necessary, said Jana Magoon, with the city’s development services department.
“There are a lot of big-hearted people in the world who want to do the right thing, but in the end it backfires,” said Magoon, who had not heard of plans for the Rite Aid site. “We are requesting this type of information up front so the person or the party basically has gone through all of the steps they need to go through for it to be successful.”
It could take the city at least four months to process the permit to change the site’s use, assuming it is approved, Magoon said.
Elements required when applying for a conditional-use permit for a shelter include:
▪ Proof that a public meeting was held, including notification of the area’s neighborhood council, area neighborhood groups and all neighbors of the property within 400 feet.
▪ An operations plan and a maintenance plan for the site.
▪ Demonstrated knowledge of the city’s nuisance code.
▪ Participation in the city’s multifamily, crime-free housing program.
▪ A written procedure for addressing neighborhood grievances.
▪ Sign-off from a city inspector.
The city then would ask for input from neighbors and possibly require a public hearing, Magoon said. The director then could require the shelter’s operators to address neighbors’ concerns before allowing the shelter to move forward.
Connelly said she’d like to open the shelter by January 2019. She expects her group would have to raise $1.8 million to make that happen.
“We will have a big gala, and we will do all sorts of fundraising and connecting,” Connelly said. “People seem so passionate because, honestly, if someone else can do this, please, let them do this. But there’s nothing happening right now.
“This would be a gift to the community, a place to thrive for the entire community. This is not a social service being dumped.”