Plymouth at First Hill, one point of progress in Seattle’s homelessness emergency

Plymouth Housing Group built the Cal Anderson House — supportive housing for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance — 17 years ago. Now, they’re opening a new building on First Hill, moving in mostly homeless people with disabilities. Because of the mountains of paperwork, moving people in is a slow and rough process that will be finished by the end of December.

Walking up to the building on Cherry Street, the familiar landscape-painted poles under I-5 accompany people sitting out in the cold on mattresses, in boxes and in tents. Plymouth’s own building attempts to bring a piece of that familiarity inside with its own landscape-painted pole in its lobby.

The security-enforced front desk, operated 24/7, lies adjacent. Largely because of its hours, the building has 10 people on staff. Those working the front desk try to keep tabs on their residents so they know everything is alright while not being too intrusive. It’s a tough balance. UPDATE: CHS reported on the staff total for the project. There are 170 total employees across all Plymouth properties. Sorry for the error.

“A lot of the people who moved in to Plymouth Housing units have not been treated well in the system and bureaucracy,” said chief program officer Kelli Larsen.

The new facility, officially called Plymouth at First Hill, was built as quickly as possible once Plymouth found the previously dilapidated office building. The site wasn’t chosen for any specific reason but, rather, to seize the opportunity.

710 Cherry Street has 77 units, and each floor has a laundry room. The units are set up like micro-studios with an open room that includes a side kitchen and cabinets. Attached is a small bathroom. Only one person (a single adult) can live in a unit and pets aren’t allowed unless they’re certified service animals.

In an attempt to help tenants settle in, workers often make food bank runs and conduct community activities for residents. The new building is also low-barrier housing where residents won’t be evicted on their first mishap.

“We’re housing people who have sometimes never lived in a place by themselves so we are very flexible with people,” Larsen said. “We don’t evict on the first violation.”

Possible reasons for eviction would be an incident of violence or repeated months of unpaid rent. The units are over 50% full. Most residents are on long-term disability checks or need to be, which Plymouth helps handle.

“It’s our goal to get you on benefits,” Larsen said. “It’s a very difficult bureaucracy to navigate on your own. Even I don’t know how they do it.”

Everybody who moves in was chronically homeless and usually got referred to Plymouth by a case manager, Harborview Medical Center, YouthCare, DESC, or REACH.

Last year, 93% of Plymouth’s supportive housing residents had one or more disabilities. Considering that many of the residents struggle with physical and/or mental abilities and/or drug addiction, Harborview will have a clinic on the first floor of the building. There will be a nurse, a prescriber, mental health services, and outpatient programs. Neighbor Care is involved and REACH is the licensed chemical dependency provider.

Larsen said moving in, however, takes a long time because of all the regulations and paperwork. And while all the residents are single adults, that doesn’t mean they don’t have families.

One resident came in last week giving their family a tour of the new place, excited and happy. It was the first time he could do such a thing. Larsen hopes another resident, William, will soon be able to do the same. Since he is a resident of Plymouth, his privacy is protected and last name cannot be shared. William hasn’t seen his family in years because he didn’t want them to know he was homeless. You can watch his personal story below.

William got injured at work, ended up unemployed and eventually homeless. His story, sadly, isn’t unique.

“There’s a lot of people who have trades where if they get an injury,” Larsen said, “things spiral out of control pretty quickly because this country has no safety net.”

Plymouth takes their resident’s pasts into consideration and staff go through intensive training including concepts like housing-first, harm reduction, de-escalation, trauma-informed care, cultural diversity and competency, and the Seattle Police Department’s active shooter training.

While it costs Plymouth an average $16,000 per year to provide someone with permanent supportive housing, but it costs approximately $50,000 a year to house a person in a jail or hospital.

Plymouth largely relies on state and federal funds to keep running. They utilize the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Continuum of Care, and Section 8. These monetary lifelines, however, are far from stable.

“We’re worried about the federal budget for sure,” Larsen said. “It’s a difficult time to be in this work. Our tenants know there’s a federal budget to be debated. It scares people.”

Tenants begin to worry about losing housing yet again every budget season. The staff at Plymouth also worries about losing their jobs. As far as local voting goes, Larsen really wants to see King County’s Proposition 1 pass. It funds veterans, seniors and vulnerable populations by adding a six-year property tax (10 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation the first year, with annual increases up to 3.5 percent).

But Plymouth already has another project in the works on Rainier, but the building on the property won’t be demolished until next year.

“We’re running out of space in Seattle to do stuff,” Larsen said. “We just need so much more of this, it’s so awful. Plymouth could double tomorrow and we would still have a job to do. We really also just need more straight affordable housing.”

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3 thoughts on “Plymouth at First Hill, one point of progress in Seattle’s homelessness emergency

  1. Plymouth is an AMAZING nonprofit and is doing its part to ease homelessness in Seattle. And to have onsite medical and mental health care is absolutely wonderful. But 170 people to staff this new building?….yikes!….shows how expensive it is to help the homeless in a significant way.

    We need ALOT more buildings like this, but where is the money going to come from?

  2. Hi there! I’m a case manager at this new building, and I’m happy to let you know this is a typo- we have three case managers and about 8 building staff (building manager, building assistant, several desk staff and a janitor). We’re rather stocked with staff since this is a new project, but the last Plymouth building I was in ran 24/7 with 1 case manager and 6 building staff. We do have about 170 people working for the entire agency (admin staff plus on site staff for 14th buildings and a maintenance team), so maybe that was the mix up.

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