The blighted Baywatch apartment building has been brought back to useful life and, in weeks, will take up its role in transforming lives once as derelict as the building was.
This month, Metropolitan Development Council (MDC) re-dedicated the renovated brick building as the Randall Townsend Apartments. By fall, MDC will welcome the first 35 people who will have the opportunity, and the resources, to rebuild their lives there.
The work at the Randall Townsend Apartments will be based on a model that has proven to help heal people bedeviled by disabilities, mental illness and addictions – and to save taxpayer dollars. Called Housing First, it starts with getting chronically homeless people off the streets and settled into a secure, and very modest, home. Then it makes available all the resources they need to work toward health and recovery.
Strategies like it have helped reduce the number of people living in streets and shelters by 60 percent over the past 10 years. That has saved taxpayers millions. Between emergency services, hospital bills, jail and court costs, chronically homeless people cost Tacomans an average of $35,000 each per year. The cost plummets when the homeless are housed, paying a third of their income, which often is Social Security, for subsidized housing rent, and staying healthy and out of trouble.
The Randall Townsend adds a new resource, and provides the first step for people who have not fit into other programs. It has been divided into 35 efficiency apartments, each with a bathroom and kitchenette. MDC included a community room, a medical exam room and, key to the success of the project, quarters for a 24-hour security staff.
Though the renovators found and removed layer after toxic layer of asbestos, plus lead plumbing, they were able to preserve the original fir floors. True to its original name, the building has lovely views of Commencement Bay and downtown. More importantly, it is across Fawcett Avenue from MDC’s services center, which offers medical and mental health care, programs to fight addictions, plus education and employment resources. That adds up to the help that a person who has survived in shelters and on the streets needs to get settled, make the choice to work toward recovery, and plan for a stable life.
“Within Randall Townsend, within those homes, they’ll have access to critical support services,” said Mark Pereboom, MDC’s president and CEO. “This is for many of them the first time they will have hope.”
That hope starts with the dignity of choice, said Troy Christensen, MDC’s chief operating and strategy officer.
Residents will not have to be sober when they move into the building.
“You get your housing, and everything else comes later. The only requirement is that you behave legally, and so you don’t get evicted,” Christensen said.
That’s how it works in any other landlord-tenant relationship.
But residents also get a case manager who will evaluate their needs and connect them to resources as they are ready for them.
“When you don’t require services up front and give people the dignity of requesting what they want, they use more services,” Pereboom said, referring to national studies. “Case managers will be pulling together client-centered plans, and residents are accountable to that plan.”
Medical and mental health help are usually first on the list for Housing First participants.
“People coming out of 10 to 15 years of living outside can look psychotic because of the whole way in which they interact with the world,” Christensen said. “Homelessness causes mental illness, and one of the best remedies is to remove the homelessness.”
Most Housing First participants delight in having their own place. For the first time in years, they can spend all day indoors if they choose. They can bathe, do laundry, cook a meal, sit and read or watch television. They do not have to leave a shelter at 6:30 a.m., walk to one meal site, then to a drop-in center, another meal site, then line up for a shelter bed again in the afternoon.
The Randall Townsend will not bring troubled people to the neighborhood, Pereboom said. “They are already our neighbors. They just don’t have a front door.”
Now they do, as well as a security guard.
They will be safe from predators bent on getting their Social Security payments, trading drugs for sex, or simply tormenting them, as skinhead gang wannabees did to the reborn building’s namesake, Randall Townsend. In 2003, Townsend, who was a U.S. Navy veteran, was homeless as a result of mental illness. The skinheads found him under the Murray Morgan Bridge and kicked him and beat him with a baseball bat. They got the red shoelaces the gang initiation demanded. Townsend died.
MDC has honored him not only by naming a building for him, but by using initiative, accountability and compassion to bring people like Townsend out of the danger, and into a life of hope and substance.