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Tiny house village on Aurora Ave set to close

caption: Tiny homes are shown on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, at the Licton Springs Tiny House Village on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle.
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Tiny homes are shown on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, at the Licton Springs Tiny House Village on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

There was vocal opposition to the village at some community meetings earlier this year.

Fifty-three people live at the site on Aurora Avenue North. The village was set up last year for people with disabilities, chronic health conditions and substance abuse issues.

The Licton Springs tiny house village is set to close early 2019. The two-year permit for the city-authorized homeless camp on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle expires in March, and the city is not looking to extend the permit or re-site the village elsewhere, according to officials. 

The site on Aurora — which serves some of the most challenging homeless clients — is one of eight city-sanctioned tiny house villages currently functioning across Seattle. A ninth village slated for the South Lake Union neighborhood is expected to open next month, despite a legal challenge.

"The city is not exploring permitting avenues to continue having the site operate at that location," Will Lemke, a city spokesman, said about the Licton Springs village. "At this point we are not planning to be moving that site as it is," he said. Lemke said the city is evaluating all its options.

This is the first time since the city began using authorized encampments as part of the strategy to address homelessness that one will be phased-out. Other villages that have reached the end of their permits – like the ones in Interbay, Ballard and Rainier Valley - have either had them extended or been moved to other locations.

Officials said the previously-used model of relocating villages isn’t necessarily cost effective and can create turmoil for residents.

Lemke said the phase-out of the Licton Springs site comes as the city is adding at least 500 more emergency shelter beds to the system, including new tiny house villages.

Lemke said the city is committed to working with current residents to get them into permanent housing in the coming months.

If people remain at the Licton Springs site come March, other options like moving residents to the City’s enhanced 24-hour shelters or other tiny house villages will be explored, officials said.

“I think the one thing you can rest assured is that none of the individuals will be cycled back out onto the street unless they choose to do so of their own volition,” said Jackie St. Louis, a senior manager with the city’s Homeless Response team.

There are currently 53 people living at the site on Aurora Avenue North. The village was set up last year in response to the lack of system capacity for people dealing with significant challenges. All residents at the Licton Springs village were referred by the city’s Navigation Team, responsible for doing outreach and closing down unauthorized camps.

According to a City blog post, at least three-quarters of the residents at the Licton Springs tiny house village are chronically homeless and “most residents suffer from either a disability, chronic health condition, mental health condition, or substance abuse issue.”

The site was the city’s first low-barrier tiny house village, meaning people don’t have to be sober to live there. As with other villages, it was designed to be a temporary home for residents - a stop on the way to something better, like permanent housing.

“We’re working to get all the residents into permanent housing. That’s the goal. That’s always been the goal,” said Lisa Gustaveson with the City’s Human Services Department.

But serving people with the kind of complex issues found at the Licton Springs village takes time, Gustaveson said.

According to the city, 39 of the 53 people at the village have been there for longer than one year.

While city programs overall are getting more people into permanent housing this year over last, the opposite appears to be true for tiny house villages.

Only 33 people left tiny house villages across Seattle for permanent housing in the first six months of 2018. That’s a slight decline over the same time last year.

Now, the City aims to house all 53 residents at the Licton Springs site by March 2019.

Jackie St. Louis concedes it’s a long shot.

“It’s a challenge, but one that we’re committed to meeting head on,” he said. 

Additional case management is being added to the site to help get as many people as possible into housing in the next five months.

And officials say they’ve learned valuable lessons from the Licton Springs site, which they’ll carry over into other villages.

For example, Gustaveson said case management and staffing levels need to reflect the needs of the population being served, and officials now agree that case management and active housing search efforts should be required of people who enter villages. Gustaveson said the lessons learned will be reflected in the operations of the South Lake Union site that's slated to open in the coming weeks.

In addition, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget includes more than $400,000 for extra case management, behavioral health specialists and additional staff at several villages in 2019, including Licton Springs.

Although the model will evolve and change, St. Louis said similar models to the village in Licton Springs will likely be needed in the future to ensure people who are chronically homeless and have high needs are properly served.

But that isn’t always easy. The Licton Springs site drew criticism from some surrounding community members. Though many residents said the village changed their lives for the better and helped provide stability, some neighbors associate the site with increased crime and other negative impacts.

There was vocal opposition to the village at some community meetings earlier this year. City officials say they heard the concerns of neighbors and worked with village operators, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and SHARE/WHEEL, to address issues through things like added security.

But the message from officials isn’t that the opposition drove the village out of the neighborhood.

Gustaveson said the message is that the city is doing what it said it would, and ending the program on Aurora Avenue North when the two-year city permit expires in March 2019.

St. Louis said, despite the closure, the site has been a “rousing success” and the takeaway for him is that people got help there.

“For the folks who have been housed, whether it be 100 or 1, it matters to them,” he said. 

Tiny houses are not technically considered shelter by federal standards. However, the city has increased investments in the villages in recent years. Each night there are 350 spots inside the small structures, which have locking doors and provide access to restrooms, showers, a kitchen and case management. 

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