Hanging above the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association’s office on Tacoma Avenue is a banner with a simple message:
Winter is a’ coming.
It’s an inconspicuous sign that’s impossible to argue with. Winter is, indeed, coming. And while the sunshine we’ve enjoyed recently might make it easy to forget, it won’t be long before temperatures start to dip. The seasonal shift can already be felt at night.
The sign, in addition to being true, is also a subtle jab at city officials from the association’s executive director, Linda Fotiou. She took over six years ago for the ousted Felix Flannigan amidst a leadership scandal and financial crisis that threatened to doom the affordable housing nonprofit.
Now in her 60s, Fotiou describes herself as an “empty nester” with two kids away at college and just a dog and her pocketbook to look after. In a raspy voice, she tells me she needs a challenge.
And recently, she says, she found one.
On Friday morning Fotiou met me outside the MLKHDA office, putting out her own cigarette and handing two others to one of the homeless men camped out front as I pulled up. It’s a population Fotiou seems to know well, telling me it’s not unusual to see as many as 30 unsheltered people sleeping in front of the building at night.
Last week, Fotiou oversaw the launch of what the MLKHDA is calling its Locks & Socks program, a six-month pilot effort designed to take advantage of the 150 unused lockers accessible through the building’s alleyway.
The idea is straightforward: providing “a safe and secure storage facility” for those experiencing homelessness during the harsh winter months.
Fotiou is using space that would otherwise sit empty to create a place for the homeless to lock up their belongings during the day, and to connect people with services and essential supplies like socks, gloves and underwear.
“Storage is incredibly essential,” said Megan Capes, who works for Tacoma Catholic Worker at the nearby Guadalupe House, which provides transitional housing for those exiting homelessness. “Folks who are living on the streets need to be able to keep their belongings somewhere. It breaks down fights. It helps people go to job interviews. And it also allows them to not have the stigma of walking around with their bags all day.”
The beginnings have been humble. On Friday, nine people used Locks & Socks, which allows people to drop off belongings from 7-9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and pick them up from 4-6 p.m. Longer term storage is also available. The only catch is those using the service will be required to connect with a homeless service agency within two weeks. The association is hopeful business will pick up.
As Fotiou tells it, Locks & Socks is a classic lemonade-out-of-lemons endeavor.
Which brings us back to the sign.
The lockers at the heart of Locks & Socks were once part of the Tacoma Avenue homeless shelter, which her association operated at the site (under the name King Center) for almost eight years, until 2008 when Catholic Community Services took over the work.
The MLKHDA assumed the shelter operations at the site in late 2001 after the previous operator ran into financial trouble. The MLKHDA was never a great fit for the job; city grant money was lost, feathers were ruffled, and Catholic Community Services’ takeover was seen as a positive development for all parties involved.
This year, the shelter closed when Catholic Community Services consolidated into the new $13.5 million Nativity House on Yakima Avenue on Hilltop. Since then, the 140 beds and 150 lockers on Tacoma Avenue have sat empty, collecting dust.
Which is exactly the point Fotiou is trying to drive home with her sign.
She’s got a shelter at the ready and is obviously angling to get her association back into the business.
As simple as that goal might seem — with a downtown shelter sitting empty and a homeless population that, at least based on the unnerving visuals along Tacoma Avenue, seems to be growing — it’s sure to be anything but.
The politics of homeless services are complicated. Money is scarce, and many wonder whether opening another shelter in Tacoma — instead of, say, more permanent housing — would be the best use of resources.
There’s also the complicated history of the MLKHDA, an organization with a checkered past (See Flannigan, Felix) and a core mission of providing affordable housing, not necessarily homeless services.
Still, with winter a’ coming, Fotiou tells me she intends to press forward, using Locks & Socks to provide a service those living on Tacoma’s streets need — and as a way to highlight the fact that what could be one of the largest shelters in the city sits empty.
And she already has her next sign in mind:
Baby it’s cold outside.
Soon it will be.