August 1

A Room of One’s Own

Plymouth Housing Group has been working to eliminate homelessness in Seattle for nearly 40 years. Here’s how the nonprofit continues to impact the community by providing permanent housing for those in need.

In 2010, Michelle Wise-Bailey made the cross-country move to Seattle from St. Louis. “I came here to start my life,” she says. “Someone told me if I wanted to have a new beginning, Seattle was a good place to start—and that’s true.”

When she first arrived in town, Wise-Bailey lived in a shelter and was put on a waitlist for permanent housing. Eventually, she was able to move into a downtown building run by Plymouth Housing Group.

Founded in 1980, Plymouth’s mission is to eliminate homelessness and address its causes by operating safe, supportive housing and providing homeless adults with opportunities to stabilize and improve their lives. They currently own 14 buildings and offer more than 1,000 apartments throughout the city.

In South Lake Union, Plymouth’s two properties include the Pat Williams Apartments, a clean and sober facility geared toward people who actively want to be in recovery, and the David Colwell Building, designed to be affordable workforce housing.

Wise-Bailey lived in a Plymouth apartment for nearly a year and a half. During that time, she got an on-call job with Plymouth Housing, eventually working her way to a full-time position. A couple of months after being hired, she was able to move out and open up a spot for someone else in need. Now, she’s the building coordinator for Plymouth on First Hill, the newest building.

“I love telling other tenants where I came from and how I got to where I am now,” Wise-Bailey says. “I feel like my story will be inspirational to others to help them move forward.”

While Wise-Bailey moved out of her apartment, residents are welcome to stay forever. Many struggle with disabilities such as chronic medical conditions, chemical dependency, mental illness, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the effects of aging and poverty.

Plymouth strongly believes in its model for reducing homelessness, citing the economic benefits. It costs Plymouth about $16,000 a year to provide a person with permanent supportive housing—in contrast, it costs approximately $50,000 a year to house a person in a jail cell or hospital bed.

“In an environment where we are desperately trying to find a solution to homelessness as a community, it’s a prime time for people to be focusing on what’s the proven method that works,” says Andrea Carnes, chief operations officer at Plymouth Housing. “Permanent supportive housing is the most cost-effective and best support for the people who are the most vulnerable in our community.”

In her role, Carnes oversees the facilities, the day-to-day operation of the buildings, and capital planning—all challenges for a number of reasons. For one, several of the buildings are old hotels that have to be preserved on a minimal budget. Carnes also needs to make sure the employees who are on the front lines doing the work feel appreciated and have everything they need to perform their jobs.

“People move straight from the street into our housing—there’s not a requirement or a transitional phase, and you can stay as long as you choose,” she says. “That comes with a whole host of challenges for people who have been very traumatized and very vulnerable on the streets. It does take a toll on the individual, and we are constantly finding ways to support our staff.”

Despite everything, Carnes loves her job—and she works with a team who feels the same way. “This is a place where I would say people choose to work here,” Carnes says. “They have a heart connection to the work we’re doing. It’s not easy work, but it’s very fulfilling being surrounded by people who are really wanting to solve the problem of homelessness and doing that in very practical ways.”

As someone who’s experienced Plymouth Housing from multiple perspectives, Wise-Bailey is happy that she can connect with tenants on a daily basis. She recognizes that many don’t have families, so she makes sure to show that she cares for and supports them in any way she can, whether that’s hosting a potluck or looking up resources for them on the computer.

For her, the best part comes during the lease signing. “When I show a new apartment, it’s just the expression on their face,” she says. “I’m a crybaby, so I cry happy tears. They have a home they can come home to. They have their own door to close.”

Proceeds from this year’s South Lake Union Block Party (August 10; noon to 11pm) benefit Plymouth Housing Group. To learn more about Plymouth Housing Group, visit plymouthhousing.org.

Story by Haley Shapley and Photography by Joshua Huston and William Wright Photography

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