Architectural rendering of a modular congregate shelter. Modular housing is a type of dwelling where the components are manufactured in one location, then assembled at another location. Courtesy of kingcounty.gov.

Architectural rendering of a modular congregate shelter. Modular housing is a type of dwelling where the components are manufactured in one location, then assembled at another location. Courtesy of kingcounty.gov.

Modular housing in King County moves ahead

Small, portable housing units are being explored by the county to address homelessness.

Several portable housing units that were purchased by King County will be placed at locations county officials hopes will provide more ways for people to exit homelessness.

The county purchased 20 units, known as modular dorms, to be used as affordable housing last year. These are traditionally used in remote locations to house employees while doing forest work and can be built and deployed at a much cheaper rate than standard housing units. They can also be connected to utilities and house up to eight people.

The units were bought from Morgan Portable Building Contractors in Texas, which refurbished them for a total cost of around $2.35 million. Six have been placed at a site in the SODO neighborhood in Seattle, eight are being stored on Harbor Island and another six are being finished in Texas. King County’s director of housing, homelessness and community development Mark Ellerbrook said the program could help people transition from living on the streets to more stable housing.

“One key thing we have is a lack of affordable housing,” he said.

The performance of these units will be monitored and the county will see if the program could be expanded, if it provides housing in a cost- and time-effective way and if it actually works in getting people into housing.

The county is involved in three projects with the units. The SODO site will hold around 72 people and serve as a shelter, the next is a micro-housing project that will house around 25 and a final project is being developed in conjunction with the city of Shoreline.

The county is additionally hoping to direct more attention to Native Americans experiencing homelessness. Native Americans, as well as black people, are many times more likely than white people to experience homelessness in King County, Ellerbrook said.

Derrick Belgarde is the deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, which has partnered with the county to provide services at the SODO location specifically for Native Americans. The SODO site will be called The Village and provide access to services on top of housing.

Additionally, The Village will have a common area with cultural activities like drumming, singing, story telling and arts. An onsite double-wide trailer will provide office space, a dining area and laundry.

Belgarde said they hope to create a community and have the site serve as a bridge to housing programs. A shortage of affordable housing means people can be move-in ready, but can still end up waiting for years to get housed. Native Americans experiencing homelessness also face historic struggles created by 500 years of colonization.

“A lot of systems are designed that are very troublesome I guess for someone who is struggling with certain traumas or PTSD,” Belgarde said.

Even well-meaning programs can leave people in worse situations than before and can inadvertently pressure forcible assimilation. This is magnified by historic policies like the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which saw the federal government try and pressure Native Americans to leave reservations and head to cities. Many people left because of promises made by the government, but only found menial jobs and ended up homeless.

“There is a general distrust of government systems within our communities that’s very, very deep,” Belgarde said. “And our people don’t seem to do well going through those systems.”

The Chief Seattle Club will be overseeing the programs at the SODO site, which Belgarde said gives him hopeful that this shelter may be more effective than others. Currently, the organization already serves around 130 Native Americans every day. The SODO site is expected to come on-line this summer.

Some services will also be provided by Catholic Community Services, said King County councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles. The county additionally opened shelters at Harborview Hall and the west wing of the county jail in downtown Seattle as emergency shelters as part of the county’s overall homelessness plan.

“It’s one part of that, there’s so much to do and the main goal as I see it is to do all we can to have people be able to exit homelessness and have stable housing,” she said.

An update from the county executive’s office was due to be presented at the April 24 county council meeting, after which an additional $150,000 would be released for the program.

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