Phoenix Housing Network has found a new home for itself, and has invited us to help get the new place into shape.
In 2011, St. Ann Catholic Parish, which had provided a perfect home for Phoenix for 12 years, asked it, in the nicest way, to leave.
The church was growing and needed the space that Phoenix had filled with successful programs.
Phoenix agreed to be out by last November.
It is still there.
No one anticipated how long and wearying the search for a suitable spot would be.
To Phoenix Housing Network’s credit, its respect for the community turned out to be a complicating factor in finding a site.
To St. Ann’s credit, it has borne the inconvenience of the over-long search with patience.
Both parties have made the best of making do – the kind of true Tacoma trademark behavior that has guided them from their beginnings.
Intercommunity Family Shelter Network was a bright and simple idea in the 1990s. Because Pierce County did not have enough shelters for families with children, churches would host them for a week at a time. Volunteers would deliver cots and bedding. Members of the host congregation would cook and serve dinner to the families. In the morning, the kids would go to school and the parents would go to work, school or to programs aimed at helping them become independent.
In 1996, Catholic Community Services took on the program and renamed it Phoenix Housing Network.
“We were in an old house in Hilltop. That was our first day center,” said Housing Services Director Alan Brown.
It was cramped, considering the families needed bathrooms, showers, washers and dryers, a big kitchen and rooms for counseling.
Around the same time, St. Ann Catholic Church had closed its elementary school at South ‘G’ and 72nd streets. Rather than let the building stand empty and deteriorate, the church rented it to the Puyallup Tribe’s Chief Leschi School while its new campus was under construction. It was a great fit while it lasted, and the church made sure it had an equally good one to follow.
When Chief Leschi moved out, Phoenix Housing Network moved in. “At the time, we occupied not more than half of the building and shared the use with the parish,” Brown said. “As our program expanded, we took up more and more of the building.”
The emergency shelter program stayed the same. Churches and schools host five families for a week at a time. The adults work on the issues that left them homeless. The kids go to school or child care. Families can stay in that program for three months.
But, as money and research on what works allowed, Phoenix developed new programs to get those families settled and secure for the long term.
Some of them move into one of Phoenix’s 50 units of transitional housing elsewhere. Some qualify for vouchers to help with rent on the private market. All receive the support – from job training to socks – they need to keep moving toward independence.
“As our program expanded, we took up more of the building,” Brown said. “In 2004, Catholic Community Services took over Suited for Success.”
The clothing bank, which offers men and women clothes for work, fills two classrooms.
The families need storage space for their possessions. Kids need a place to play. New employees need offices.
“In a way, our program grew into the building, like the way a tree will adapt to its environment,” Brown said.
That it could expand to fill the old school while paying $1,300 a month rent, plus utilities, was a blessing.
But St. Ann was growing and evolving, too.
“They serve a large Vietnamese congregation,” Brown said. “We are now sharing the building with them on weekends when they have classes here, Vietnamese language classes, for the kids.” Those classes strengthen families by connecting kids with their families’ history. They give the young people the useful tool of another language. And they are popular. The parish needs more space for them.
That is why, in 2011, the parish asked Phoenix to find a new home.
All involved thought it might take 10 months.
There are plenty of empty spaces in Tacoma, but Phoenix has unique needs and puts special pressures on a neighborhood.
It needed a building of between 10,000 to 12,000 square feet on a bus route, with enough parking for families, staff and volunteers. It must have zoning that allows the program.
Those are the basics.
“Some of the most likely paces are former schools and nursing homes, but there are zoning issues,” Brown said.
Zoning, poor condition and size took former public elementary and high schools out of the running.
“One place we got really excited about was a remodeled nursing home,” Brown said.
It was in good shape, and the interior was a great fit.
But Brown’s team considered how Phoenix might fit into the neighborhood.
The site would have needed a re-zone.
“We want to respect the neighborhood we move into,” Brown said.
Though Phoenix is not an overnight shelter, Brown respects neighbors leery of services for homeless people in a residential area.
Parking was a problem, too.
“There wasn’t enough, which could have an impact on the neighborhood,” he said.
If only all social services providers brought that kind of sensibility to their site planning.
Now Phoenix has found the right spot, a broad two-story brick building at 5050 South Tacoma Way. Once they finalize the sale, they will bring the three storefronts back to life in a rebounding neighborhood long on history, working-class pride and change.
They will build bathrooms, showers, a laundry room and kitchen. They will frame in offices, a day room and space for Suited for Success. They will install an elevator to meet accessibility requirements.
This is where our invitation kicks in.
“We need support, both monetarily and in getting that building ready, knocking out walls, painting, installing the kitchen and showers,” Brown said.