Photo by Jerry Gay
Brian Puhl, team lead at the University District Urban Rest Stop, makes sure everything stays in order.

Inside the Urban Rest Stop

A look at U-District's Rest Stop, a conversation with the people who run it and what it means for Ballard

By Elizabeth Wang

For over 11 years, the Urban Rest Stop in downtown Seattle has been providing homeless and low-income individuals with warm showers, clean washrooms, and laundry facilities at no cost.

Striving to make a difference in the community, the staff at the Urban Rest Stop hopes to help those in need for a chance at a clean start each day.

“Many of the homeless individuals don’t have access to hygiene or restroom facilities,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low-Income Housing Institute. “They are trying to keep their jobs, find work or get into housing, but there are a lot of homeless people who are living on the street or in their car and they just don’t have any facilities to stay healthy and clean.”

With that in mind, the Low Income Housing Institute plans to open a third Urban Rest Stop in Ballard (the second one being in the University District) to be developed at 2014 NW 57th St, on the bottom floor of a proposed six-story, 51-unit, low-income senior living apartment complex. However, while the permit has gone through for the senior living apartments, the permit has been delayed for the Urban Rest Stop after community concerns were expressed. A community advisory committee is being setup to help guide how the Ballard Urban Rest Stop should function.

With the rising number of homeless people in the area, the Urban Rest Stop would not only offer a service to those in need, but to the surrounding businesses as well.

“Homeless people are using libraries and department stores to wash up and that’s caused a big problem,” Lee said. “And that’s true with the Ballard library right now. They use the Ballard library to take a sponge bath or clean up or brush their teeth, so we think we’re going to make a big difference in Ballard.”

The Urban Rest Stop in the University District opened in August. In the few months that is has been running, it has been successful in terms of visitors.

“The first day we opened we saw four people. The third day we saw eight and on the fourth day we saw 65,” said Ronni Gilboa who manages both the downtown and University District rest stops. “We’re seeing a variety of different people of all ages, shapes and colors and people are getting their clothes cleaned and living their lives.”

The same goals have been set for the Ballard location. With most of the funding allocated and the building permits on the way, Lee said construction should be begin in late March 2013 and should be completed in 12-14 months from then.

Along with the rest stop, the above building will accommodate low-income seniors 62 years and older with housing, including a library and computer center, for only 30 percent of their income used for rent.

Some people in the community have expressed concerns about the Urban Rest Stop. At a Sept. 23 Department of Planning and Development design review meeting, community members said that they were worried about individuals camping out on the porch throughout the night and congregating in long lines in front of the door. At the Downtown location, they said they have counted 39-55 people lining up at the door and that they were concerned the Ballard location didn’t provide enough space for such long queues.

But Lee assures that these issues haven’t caused any problems at the other two locations.

“The people who use it are so grateful and appreciative,” she said. “They are overwhelmed by the opportunity that our staff cares about their needs. They’re really on their best behavior; we have very few incidents. They want a peaceful place and they want it to be kept clean.”

Katie Robinson is the manager of Café Allegro in the University District, which shares the alleyway with three other social services, including the Urban Rest Stop.

“When we heard that an Urban Rest Stop was opening, sharing the space with ROOTS (a homeless-youth shelter service), we were a little bit concerned at how many more people would be coming into the alley during the day,” Robinson said. “At first we had quite a few people hanging out in our front ... on the benches.”

But after speaking to the rest stop coordinators, Robinson said the problem was mitigated immediately.

“They talked to the patrons and said they needed to respect the area with their businesses if they wanted to continue using the rest stop,” Robinson said. “Now, people who do their laundry do come into the café. They do purchase items and they’re respectful and they’re just like any other customer. Urban Rest Stop does a really good job at being a community neighbor.”

Apart from managing the café, Robinson resides only a few blocks away from the site and even then she said she has no complaints.

“The people who run it do a good job,” she said. “And I would assume the same would happen for Ballard … This is a basic social need that needs to be met and as a business located directly 50 yards away, we haven’t been negatively impacted by it.”

Though the advisory committee has not been fully assembled as of yet, Lee and Gilboa hope to open the rest stop early enough Monday through Friday to allow individuals to clean themselves up before work hours. Equipped with full washers and dryers, private bathrooms with individual showers, toilets and sinks and references to outside resources (for employment, housing and medical concerns), Lee expects this public facility to be a high-quality and attractive, friendly place.

“It’s that people who need to access to basic hygiene have an opportunity to take a shower, get their clothes clean and get some resources,” Gilboa said. “That their quality of life improves; that’s the goal.”

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