Bob Baker wrote about Compass Housing Alliance in the newsletter for the First Lutheran Church of West Seattle after watching our special event with Gregg Colburn – Homelessness is a Housing Problem. We are reprinting it here with his permission.

People Serving Neighbors in Need

Homelessness is obviously a visible problem. It has been for decades. With all that time and the money spent talking about and “addressing” the problem, why does it seem that there are more people experiencing homelessness now instead of fewer?

A Mystery? A book has been written about this and about Compass Housing Alliance. However, the book, Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern (forthcoming, March 2022), does not mention Compass Housing Alliance (CHA). How can the book be about CHA and yet not mention CHA?

Waterfront Backstory. Let me tell you. First, some of CHA’s backstory. In 1920, the Lutheran Sailors and Loggers Mission was founded near the Seattle waterfront by Rev. Otto and Mrs. Alva Karlstrom? Many seamen didn’t speak English. The Mission’s purpose was, and still is through CHA, to provide a welcoming space for people in need.

Walk Today’s Streets. For a while in the late 1980s, on most Fridays, I volunteered at the Lutheran Compass Center (LCC) (as it was then called). Sometimes I helped serve food in the dining hall. Usually I “walked the streets” with the chaplain, Rev. Nyer Urness. We visited with unhoused people in the vicinity of Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market. We listened to whatever was on their minds and when appropriate, we told them about what was available at the Lutheran Compass Center.

What Was Available? In those days LCC had one location: a six-story building at 77 South Washington Street, next to the Viaduct (Viaduct is gone but CHA is still there). One floor provided night shelter and beds for women; another floor for men; the kitchen and dining hall were on a different floor; downstairs was the hygiene centers, separate for men and women, providing showers and laundry services. The main floor provided a variety of services: chapel; places for staff to meet with clients; a mail center for unhoused people (4,700 people used this in 2019); banking services for those not accepted by a commercial bank (600 people in 2019). Today there is also a Day Center with case managers available; computers for use, and at certain times a nurse is available.

A Clue for Our Mystery. The one building that was LCC has now become 21 programs! Compass Housing Alliance now has three programs that provide 222 beds of 24/7 enhanced emergency shelter. CHA has 14 buildings around King County providing 678 units of affordable housing for women, women with children, men, families, veterans, etc. “Affordable housing” means that the rent for these units is not set by the commercial market! This feature is what connects with the Homelessness book. I also want to note here that these buildings are staffed with people who support the residents in accessing needed social services as well as gaining skills to advance themselves.

The “Mystery” Book. In the research for their book, Colburn and Aldern set out to identify and document the root cause(s) of homelessness. Ask people what causes homelessness and you get a list headed by factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, availability of welfare benefits, January temperatures, job loss, divorce, etc.

Silence of Data. Colburn and Aldern compiled data on cities and some counties in the USA. Considering each possible factor, was homelessness high where a particular factor was high? No significant correlation was found for any factor. However, they did find that it is true these precipitating factors do increase the risk of homelessness, as we might expect, but none of them were shown to correlate directly to high rates of homelessness.

Persistence. So, Colburn and Aldern pressed further (and there is much more in their book than in this article!). In short, in a tight housing market where rent is pushed high, and buildable land is scarce and expensive, homelessness is pushed high. (Their data shows a significant correlation: R² = 0.55) The homeless, of course, are people below the poverty line who obviously cannot afford the rent demanded by the commercial market.

The Solution Key. Private contractors cannot afford to build housing and rent it out at rates affordable for people below the poverty line. Non-profit charities are needed to build (that is costly) and maintain such affordable housing for this vulnerable population. By the way, the Puget Sound region needs 37,000 more units of such housing.

Mystery Solved. It turns out that the Colburn and Aldern book advocates for what CHA is in fact already doing, although CHA itself is not mentioned in the book.

Thank you! With an annual budget of over $18 million, CHA, on behalf of the vulnerable people they serve, needs and welcomes your contributions. Thank you.

Bob Baker, on behalf of the Committee for Extended Ministry

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